Several council members criticized mayor Jose “Joey” Torres on Tuesday evening for using public works employees and dubious permits to rehabilitate a church building on Montgomery Street for the city’s soon-to-open reentry program.
“That sounds like fraud,” said Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward councilman, mentioning the manner in which Torres used one of his deputy mayor Ray Baker to obtain building permits for 147 Montgomery Street.
“It’s not fraud,” responded business administrator Nellie Pou. Torres’ attorney at the council Domenick Stampone said, it may be “unorthodox” but “not illegal.”
Torres secured permits by using Baker’s construction company to do work at the site. Torres told the Paterson Press the city had to take out the permits using the deputy mayor because city workers did not have the necessary licenses to obtain the building permits themselves.
Business administrator Nellie Pou said the city has a licensed electrician who took out the electrical permits. Those permits though, were taken out long after some of the electrical work had been done at the building, for example a service box was installed at the site on Saturday, December 26th, 2015 while the permits were taken out Tuesday afternoon – three days later.
Pou said Baker’s company took out the permit without charge. She indicated Baker’s company was not involved at the construction site.
“The process was undermined or overlooked,” said Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman. Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, thought the city is creating great liabilities for itself. Mendez asked who is responsible if something goes wrong.
“He pulls the permit he bears the responsibility,” said Jackson. He suggested the liabilities will fall on the shoulders of the deputy mayor who took out the permits.
The 1st Ward councilman thought the work can be done by anyone so long as the individual who took out the permit is overseeing the work. City officials gave conflicting answers whether Baker is on site overseeing the work.
Pou indicated Baker was not working at the site. Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman, said she observes his car parked at the site and has good reasons to believe the deputy mayor is overseeing the work being done.
Council members were unhappy that the mayor did not notify about the situation. Jackson thought council members at least deserve a note or communication so that they can respond to constituents who have been calling them about the work being done at a private building by city employees.
Pou said there’s an agreement between the Grace Gospel Church which owns the property and the city. The council did not approve any agreement with the church and the city.
Stampone said the council did not have meetings in almost a month which prevented the Torres administration from keeping council members abreast of what was going on at the site.
“What are we going to do about the overtime?” asked Mendez. The business administrator said overtime and material costs being incurred by the city will be covered by a Community Block Grant — $180,000 earmarked for the program.
Pou said the city received four expensive bids.
The lowest bid submitted by Baker Home Improvement of 21st Avenue, but the company did not have any bonding capacity rendering it unresponsive, according to Stampone. “They lacked some basic requirements,” he said.
The second lowest was $207,000 from Alimi Builders of East 23rd Street. Seeing the large price tags the city decided to use its own workers to get the job done.
Pou said material and labor cost at the site will cost roughly $135,000. She said the city’s plan to undertake the construction itself was “reviewed” and “cleared” by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, who serves as the chairman of the Community Development Committee, said the developer was supposed to spend the grant money. He said the city changed its plans about the program to undertake the work itself. He said the plan change should have happen through the council.
“We don’t know if HUD will reimburse the dollars incurred,” said Morris. He said the Torres administration said the city would be repaid for the overtime and labor expenses and materials.
Morris compared the situation that has raised great deal of controversy in the city to the process of cooking chitlin. He said the preparation process is obnoxiously foul-smelling, but once cooked the food is of exceptional taste.
“The preparation is beginning to smell,” he said.