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OC OKs Contract with Lobby Firm

Resident Donna Moore questions city spending on the firm Jan. 23

By Bill Barlow

OCEAN CITY – Ocean City Business Administrator George Savastano presented a detailed defense of a $5,000-a-month contract with Trenton firm TBA of New Jersey for advocacy work on behalf of the city’s back bay and lagoon dredging program.
The firm has been contracted by the city since 2016 and renewed in 2017. Ocean City Council approved a new contract Jan. 23 for 2020, to total $60,000, for the firm to work on a city-wide plan for dredging.
The contract came under fire, in 2019, from Dave Breeden, of the watchdog group Fairness In Taxes (FIT), who argued that there was scant evidence of the efforts put in by the firm, then described as Tonio Burgos and Associates, but listed as TBA of NJ LLC in city documents.
In September 2019, Breeden argued that he could find no proof of any efforts undertaken by the firm on behalf of the city for close to two years, based on requests for city records and searches of public disclosure forms.
Breeden described the firm as “the lucky lobbyist.” He argued that there is little documentation of work undertaken by the firm.
Before council voted, Savastano described the firm as an important part of the city’s dredging plan. The city has undertaken a multi-year, multimillion-dollar project to clear lagoons and waterways of silt to keep waterways open to boat traffic. Officials, and many residents, said the work has been neglected for years.  
As part of the administration reports at the meeting, Savastano argued that the firm is an important part of city efforts on the bay, and in work to improve drainage throughout the city, helping secure grants and advocating for Ocean City.
“The value of TBA’s services and the way that the city pays for those services have been publicly questioned in the past,” he said. “TBA has assisted Ocean City in achieving our tip-to-tip dredging permit, enabling the achievement of a massive, city-wide dredging project and saving taxpayers along the bayfront the time, aggravation and expense of securing individual permits from the state DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and the federal (Army) Corps of Engineers.”
Savastano said TBA has helped gain approval for new uses of dredged material, including in turf farms and restoration efforts. Finding a place for the silt pulled from waterways is often one of the limiting factors for dredging projects.
He said the firm also helped gain approval for a road connecting a disposal site to Roosevelt Boulevard, without which the projects could not have moved forward.
“TBA continues to be an invaluable resource,” Savastano said. “The city intends to continue with our dredging program to ensure our waterways remain safe and navigable now and long into the future.”
Without mentioning Breeden or FIT, Savastano said the city continued to monitor TBA’s efforts, along with other contractors, to make sure it was getting its money’s worth, and said the current monthly flat fee is the best arrangement. He also argued that not all of the efforts on the city’s behalf show up in public documents.
“What is legally required to be reported is far from the time that is spent working on Ocean City’s behalf,” Savastano said.
A memo included with council’s agenda packet states that under the contract, TBA will meet with municipal, county, state and federal officials on the dredging and flood mitigation projects.
“TBA will work with Ocean City and key elected officials to develop strategy for both the short term and long-term goals for issues of great importance to enhance and protect the City of Ocean City and its residents,” reads the memo.
Breeden, president of FIT, was not at the meeting. Another member of the organization, Donna Moore, questioned the expertise of the company during public comment, based on what the company posted on its website.
“They are strong with real estate investment. They are very strong with economics,” she said, stating that the company would transmit information from Ocean City to officials in Trenton.
“They’re receiving $5,000 a month without itemizing any of their charges. Maybe they don’t even work for their $5,000 some months,” she said.
The fee does not include travel expenses or other costs that can be passed on to the city.
“I think we need to really question the value that we’re getting for this,” Moore continued. “Are we smart enough as a municipality to do this on our own? Do we need to always outsource to other entities and pay them lots of money?”
The vote was taken as part of the council’s consent agenda, in which all of the resolutions for the meeting are approved in a single vote. Councilman Tony Wilson abstained in that vote.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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