In an effort to help residents recover from the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy's direct hit last October, the Bernardsville Council agreed late last November and hired a contractor to do the job for about $365,000.
That estimate was based on the contractor's survey of the damaged trees around the borough just before the collection was announced, and residents started hauling debris to the curb.
By Jan. 4, the actual amount of materials deposited at the curbside had reached 44,000 cubic yards, according to actual measurements, and the cost of collection and chipping had soared to about $1.6 million, according to figures released at Monday night's Bernardsville Borough Council meeting.
Borough Administrator Ralph Maresca said that since that count, the amount of logs, branches and brush placed alongside public borough roads may have risen to 55,000 cubic yards, nudging the collection cost to just above $2 million.
Combined with earlier costs of clearing and removing dangerous trees and other storm debris from streets and borough property immediately after the storm, that increases the total cost of cleaning up after Sandy to double or more of the initial $1 million estimate calculated by borough officials late last fall.
Majority expected to be reimbursed by federal emergency funds
Borough officials expect to receive between 75 to potentially up to 90 percent of that amount back eventually through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, the municipality must pay a portion of that amount in the meantime. Maresca said the council can approve an emergency appropriation at the next meeting of the governing body, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Jan. 28.
Borough officials are reluctant to go on the record accusing residents of hauling other materials to the curb that are not storm related, but acknowledge that the piles of materials in the public right of way have been steadily increasing.
When asked directly if people are placing yard waste at the curb that was not damaged by Sandy, Mayor Lee Honecker said, "We hear that from residents. It's very difficult to prove."
"What can we do to stop people from dragging more to the road?" Councilman Kevin Sooy asked during Monday's meeting.
"There's really nothing we can do if people chose to abuse this," said the borough's public works manager, John Macdowell. He noted that the borough can put out an automated message, or get the word around that residents should only put out Sandy-damaged trees at the curb.
The piled up vegetative debris has only been growing while the contractor, AshBritt, searches for a site large enough to stage an operation to collect the materials, and then chip it.
Honecker said he hopes that issue will be resolved in the next few days.
"This project needs three to five acres," said Councilman Joseph Rossi. He said that 80 trucks a day would be rolling in and out of the staging location.
The council was planning to go into closed session on Monday to discuss potential agreements for a staging area. However, Macdowell said that if necessary, the borough's section of the Pill Hill landfill can be used since some Sandy wood debris deposited there already has been moved out.
Terry Jackson, project manager for AshBritt, said it would have been much easier to find a smaller location if the amount of material to be collected had stayed at the original estimate.
With the amount of material swelling, the collection process will now take roughly five weeks, and the chipping time about a week, Jackson said on Monday.
Macdowell said that once the collection begins, AshBritt will visit each public street only once. "Once AshBritt goes by, that's it," he affirmed. However, he added the borough's Department of Public Works may follow to help with cleanup of such materials as leaves underneath.
Officials, including Borough Police Chief Kevin Valentine, said that residents would be responsible for the disposal of additional debris placed in the right of way along the curb after AshBritt's collection. Potentially, the borough could pick up the materials and charge the property owner later, he said.
Anticipating eventual reimbursement from FEMA — which Valentine said took almost a year for damage caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011 — borough officials presented a scenario of how much picking up the remaining tab for the cleanup on Sandy would cost the average taxpayer.
Cost of cleanup to taxpayers
The figures ranged from $69 per household if FEMA ultimately picks up 90 percent of Bernardsville's Sandy-related costs, and the total remains under $2 million.
If the amount that would include all public and private property cleanup expenses from Sandy soars to about $2.5 million and FEMA reimburses the borough for 75 percent, the cost remaining to the average borough taxpayer would be $243 per household, according to borough figures.
Also at Monday's meeting, Macdowell convinced the council to allow residents to collect neatly stacked logs that might be used as firewood from the Pill Hill recycling facility, or even the logs stacked out on public roads as long as the borough DPW is informed and can make arrangements to supervise at least 24 hours in advance.
However, Macdowell said that even giveaways of some of the logs won't substantially reduce the volume of logs and wood debris to be handled by the contractor.