By SUE MORGAN
He’s been on the job little more than seven months, but Rich Gardella, 35-year-old, spike-haired Fair Haven employee, is saving the modest-sized bedroom community big bucks and giving the town tighter control over construction than its had in years, officials say.
He’s doing it the old way: by wearing multiple hats. As the Borough Engineer, Public Works Supervisor and planning board engineer, Gardella draws up schematics for sewer basins, reviews plans for every home and business addition, and makes sure the leaves get picked up on time and ballfields get mowed. He also pulls duty inspecting construction sites.
In fact, he’s saving the town so much money that it just gave him a raise.
Last month, the borough council voted unanimously to give Gardella a $5,000 salary bump, to $95,000 a year, a move that some said was premature. Resident Chris Hempstead cautioned the council to be sure that Gardella proves that he is worth the extra money.
“If we’re going to pay more, we need to expect more,” Hempstead said. “We need to get more bang for our buck.”
Other residents suggested that the council wait until Gardella completed a year of service before hiking his salary.
But Gardella successfully completed the mandated six-month probation and was eligible under borough policies for the increase, according to Business Administrator Mary Howell.
Moreover, members of the governing body say he’s already instilled a renewed sense of oversight and accountability across several departments while improving services and DPW morale.
Part of the savings associated with Gardella’s hire last December resulted from the consolidation of functions. In addition to stepping in as engineer, he replaced DPW supervisor Tom Curcio, who was let go after two years on the job. Curcio had been making $83,000 a year and was seeking a raise.
Gardella also stepped in as the planning board engineer to review applications for development. That shaved another $30,000-a-year expense, says Mayor Mike Halfacre.
At the same time, the borough ended its longtime reliance on civil engineering firm T&M Associates of Middletown. Outside engineers still need to be brought in “some of our engineering needs can not be met by a ‘single man’ shop,” says Halfacre but a public bidding process per job ensures the town is getting a good price and “still saves us money over the prior system,” he adds.
As part of the change, there’s more money staying in town in the form of escrow fees for inspections posted by anyone doing construction work in the borough. In the past, those funds would be paid to the contract engineer. Now, they’re “staying in town,” the mayor says.
In 2006, Fair Haven paid more than $600,000 to T&M as well as to other firms. Part of that sum was engineering costs borne by the town, but a significant portion of it represented fees paid by homeowners and builders to have their plans reviewed and construction work inspected.
“We’re no longer spending that money on outside firms,” Halfacre said. “We’re keeping the escrow fees.”
Halfacre puts the overall savings to the town associated with Gardella’s presence “well into the six figures.”
“Add to that… the value of having someone ‘on-the-job’ here in town to supervise all projects, and it really is a win for us,” he tells redbankgreen via email.
What I usually tell people is that combining these functions just keeps on delivering beyond expectations, both on the bottom line and in results. The raise was a no-brainer when you look at both the tangible and intangible benefits we have realized from the move results.
Morale among public works employees, once noticeably low, has been boosted since Gardella came on board to oversee the department’s day-to-day operations, several councilmen pointed out.
Accessibility, and the convenience of knowing where to find the individual who engineered a given public works project is also an advantage over using an outside contractor, said Councilman Jon Peters.
“I want the person who has designed it to be available when something goes wrong,” Peters said.
For his part, Gardella tells redbankgreen, “I don’t look at this as two jobs. In a town the size of Fair Haven, this just makes sense” to combine roles. “It’s a manageable size for one person.”
He says, by way of illustrating the overlap, that instead of simply sending out a crew several times a year to clean out a problematic storm drain, “maybe there’s something we can do to fix it once and for all.”
Residents and building contractors also appreciate having access to someone who’s in town and accountable, he says. Though Fair Haven has little undeveloped real estate, there’s significant renovation and in-fill work, and for every project, there’s a neighbor with concerns about flooding or other adverse impacts that have to be looked into.
“It’s bringing the government closer to the people,” he says. “I think you’ll see more towns going in this direction.”
Prior to coming to Fair Haven, Gardella who’s married and lives in the Parlin section of Sayreville was employed as the borough engineer in Neptune Township. Before that, he worked for Birdsall Engineering in Eatontown, a firm that also contracts with municipal governments.
Gardella’s resumé shows that he holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree from the Edward Bloustein Institute of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.
A major part of Gardella’s job description involves dealing with Earle Asphalt, the Farmingdale-based contractor hired by officials some years ago to construct on the once-beleaguered River Road streetscape in the business district.
Frustrated by delays and purportedly faulty work on the $516,000 project, the council unanimously voted on July 14 to authorize Borough Attorney Sal Alfieri to seek legal action by going after the ten-percent bond previously posted by the contractor.
Citing that pending litigation, neither Halfacre nor Councilman Jerome Koch would comment as to what exact issues led the governing body to go after the bond.
But Gardella was hired just as friction between the council and Earle was heating up last fall, and expectations are high that he’ll be able to head off any future conflicts.
“The problems surrounding the River Road project had a major effect on our decision to hire a PE to run our public works department,” Koch said in an email last week.
Though paving and other work done by Earle Asphalt proved faulty as the governing body sees it, T&M, which was assigned to oversee the construction, also disappointed borough officials, Koch said.
“At the time the original (construction) plans were presented by T&M, we had no one in-house with the expertise to check the drawings and do inspections,” Koch wrote. “Now we have Rich as a check against any outside engineer we employ.”
Last November, Halfacre told redbankgreen that friction over Earle’s performance was “the most visible example” of the town’s need for an in-house engineer.