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City Council tables resolution, discusses wind farm

After lengthy debate that produced a rare split among its members, City Council voted Thursday night to table a no-bid consulting contract for the design of a flood-mitigation project in an area that is vulnerable to stormwater.

By a 5-2 vote, the governing body decided to put a “two-week pause” on the proposed contract to ACT Engineers Inc. in order to discuss the project further and consider opening up the work to other consulting firms.

Council members, who voted to table a resolution formalizing the ACT contract after a 90-minute discussion, said they have no intention of delaying the project for the flood-prone neighborhood surrounding West 17th Street. They said they simply want to invite in other consulting firms to bid on the design contract to see if Ocean City can get a better price through a competitive process.

“Listen, this is America. Competition is king,” Council President Bob Barr said.

ACT Engineers, based in Robbinsville, N.J., has served as a key Ocean City consultant since 2015 for an array of flooding and dredging projects. With support from Mayor Jay Gillian’s administration, the company was in line for a $55,000 no-bid contract Thursday night to perform the design work for the flood-control project on West 17th Street.

The area of West 17th Street will receive new pumping stations, drainage improvements and pipes. The city is coordinating the project with New Jersey American Water Co., which is planning to make improvements to its water and sewer system on West 17th Street from the fall of 2021 to spring 2022. The city will follow with its flood-mitigation improvements in fall 2022, according to an overview of the project presented by the mayor during a town hall meeting last December.

Although ACT was recommended for the no-bid design contract by Gillian and his administration, the Council members said they believe that other consulting firms should also be considered for the work.

“This is the perfect time to pause,” Councilman Keith Hartzell said.

He and the other Council members who voted to table the ACT contract intend to invite another firm, Michael Baker International LLC, to the governing body’s next meeting in two weeks to discuss work that it has already done on the West 17th Street project.

Michael Baker International, which has also served as an Ocean City flooding consultant, wrote a report in 2017 that essentially serves as “a road map” for the project proposed for West 17th Street, Hartzell said.

However, City Business Administrator George Savastano told Council that the Michael Baker International report is merely a concept and is not “shovel ready.” Savastano added that the design work that ACT would perform on the project is essential for getting the project ready for construction.

The Council members noted that the governing body has a duty to protect the taxpayers by getting the best possible prices for municipal contracts through competitive bidding.

To that end, Councilman Tom Rotondi has proposed a plan that would include opening up the city’s contracts to a list of “prequalified” vendors that would compete for the work. Council would advertise for consulting firms and then pare down the list for a pool of qualified candidates. Rotondi’s plan is expected to be discussed in more detail in two weeks when it comes before Council as a formal resolution.

In addition to helping the city secure better prices for its contracts, Rotondi said he believes his proposal will actually speed up the process for getting projects completed.

“This is about good government,” Rotondi said.

Gillian assured the Council members that his administration is extremely careful in spending taxpayer money and the way it hires consultants.

Council members Karen Bergman and Peter Madden cast the two dissenting votes against tabling the ACT contract. They both expressed concerns that by tabling the contract, the West 17th Street project could be delayed.

“We have to be careful that we don’t get in the way of progress,” Madden said.

“Let’s just move forward and get the project done,” Bergman added.

The other Council members assured Madden and Bergman that a “two-week pause” would not cause delays with the project.

ACT representatives, led by the company’s founder Carol Beske, were at the Council meeting to outline all of the work the firm has performed for the city on flooding and dredging projects over the past five years.

Among its accomplishments, ACT has helped the city secure a number of unprecedented regulatory permits for a multiyear dredging program that has made Ocean City a model for the entire state, Beske said.

Overall, ACT has been involved in about $7 million worth of city contracts, with about $4.5 million going to ACT itself, Beske said.

Beske told the Council members that ACT looks forward to continuing its relationship with the city for future projects.

In other business Thursday, Councilman Michael DeVlieger gave an update on the city’s talks with the Danish energy company Orsted about its proposed wind farm 15 miles off the coast.

Breaking up in small groups, the Council members met privately with Orsted representatives this week to discuss the project in more detail, including the possible impacts on the environment and the city’s tourism industry.

DeVlieger said Orsted’s representatives assured the Council members that the company will supply the city with more detailed information about the project, including studies that will examine the wind farm’s impacts on the environment, wildlife and tourism.

“Things are moving forward. It was a healthy exchange,” DeVlieger said of the meetings with Orsted.

Orsted has agreed to meet with Council again. The company also plans to provide more details about the project in a public meeting in the future, DeVlieger said.

DeVlieger urged the public Thursday to learn as much as possible about the project and its impacts on Ocean City. DeVlieger noted that the people he has spoken to so far have been overwhelmingly against the project, although four have been in favor of it.

Members of City Council have been vocal in the last three months in expressing their concerns – if not outright opposition – to the Orsted project. They have raised objections about the project’s potential negative impacts on the city’s tourism, real estate and hospitality industries. They also fear that it may harm the environment and the commercial fishing industry.

“I want to fight it tooth and nail,” Rotondi said.

In the meantime, Orsted is in the midst of a rigorous permitting process that is expected to take 27 months to complete. DeVlieger said it is unlikely that the company will start construction before May 2023. Construction would take about a year to complete.

Orsted plans to build nearly 100 wind-powered turbines 15 miles offshore stretching from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor, passing by Ocean City in the process. Council members are worried that the wind turbines, which will stand about 850 feet above mean sea level, will be visible from Ocean City’s shoreline, creating a visual blight.

“I’m not a fan of looking at wind mills for the rest of my life,” Councilman Jody Levchuk said.

Orsted is seeking formal approval to possibly run underground electric cables through Ocean City. The cables would connect the offshore turbines to a substation next to the B.L. England Generating Station in Marmora. B.L. England is under consideration as one of the sites where Orsted would link the wind farm to the land-based power grid.

Orsted would need Council’s approval for an ordinance allowing the company to run the cables under Ocean City’s streets. A company official said 35th Street is Orsted’s first choice, with 14th Street and Ninth Street also under consideration.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the Council members mourned the death of Joseph Caserta, a highly decorated World War II veteran who fought in Europe while serving as a tank commander with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division.

Those who knew Caserta well recalled that he was brave, humble and would give his fellow soldiers, veterans and family all that he had. Caserta, who was 98, died peacefully at his Ocean City home last week surrounded by family members.

Caserta, a sergeant, fought on Omaha Beach, Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. It was during the Battle of the Bulge that he earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star while fighting in the City of Cologne.

In addition to the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Caserta earned the American Campaign Medal, World War II Medal and European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal. He was appointed as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the President of the French Republic for his contributions to France’s liberation during World War II.