Town eschews lowest-bidding grant writer for better fit

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved a one-year contract with a grant-writing firm at its April 5 meeting despite the fact that the company in question was not actually the lowest bidder to respond to the township’s Request For Proposal.

The council voted 3-1-1 in favor of awarding Millennium Strategies LLC of Caldwell an agreement worth $2,333.33 per month, with Councilman Joe Krakoviak voting against it and Council President Victor Cirilo abstaining. Cirilo told the West Orange Chronicle in an April 8 phone interview that he recused himself from the discussion and vote because he had worked with Millennium as a consultant in the past. He stressed that he recused himself from “all interactions” related to this resolution to avoid any pretense of impropriety.

Typically, the township recommends the lowest bidder for the council to grant a contract to following an RFP, but Millennium’s bid was actually $291.67 higher than Bruno Associates Inc. of Clifton’s bid of $2,041.66 per month. As a result, Krakoviak questioned why the township would want to spend $3,500.04 more per year when it could instead use that money for a worthy cause.

“This is a perfect example of where we should come down on the side of saving money,” Krakoviak said. “I truly believe the library could use this $3,500 more than Millennium Strategies.”

Krakoviak was referring to the fact that the library had asked for additional funding from the township, but was denied.

Krakoviak’s wife, Clare Silvestri, also questioned why the township would award Millennium a contract at a higher price during the public comment portion of the meeting, pointing out that Bruno has been in business for approximately 35 years longer than Millennium, in addition to boasting a stellar track record. According to Bruno’s website, the firm has secured more than $600 million in grants for its clients during the past 45 years — including $50 million in the last two years alone — and has a team that includes grant managers with experience working in municipal and state government. The site even features photos of CEO John R. Bruno with such dignitaries as President Barack Obama and Gov. Chris Christie.

With such credentials, Silvestri said that it is clear to her that Bruno is the best choice for the contract.

“Bruno Associates is a first-rate grant-writing firm that appears by all indicators to be able to do as good a job as Millennium Strategies at a lower price,” Silvestri told the council prior to its vote. “At a time when taxpayers are facing another tax increase, I would strongly urge the council to vote down this resolution and direct that the contract be awarded to Bruno Associates.”

But  Jack Sayers, the township business administrator, said Millennium has had its own share of successes. According to its website, the company has delivered more than $40 million worth of grants to its clients since launching in 2005. Its team also has backgrounds working in national and local government, and its clientele includes numerous municipalities such as Hoboken, Jersey City and Nutley.

Plus, Sayers said price is not always the deciding factor when determining to whom a contract should go.

“We’ve learned through the years, especially through the bid process, that taking the lowest bidder doesn’t always work,” Sayers said. “You don’t always get what you asked for because it’s cheaper.”

Speaking with the Chronicle in an April 8 phone interview, Sayers said the administration felt that Millennium was simply a “better fit” for the township in addition to being relatively close to West Orange in proximity. When asked what specifically made it more compatible than Bruno, he referred to the resolution’s language, which states that “Bruno’s submission did not reflect the years of services, current services to its clients and staffing relative” to the grant writing that the municipality was seeking.

After viewing both companies’ websites, the Chronicle found that Millennium appears to specialize solely in grant-writing while Bruno concentrates on a number of areas, including public relations and education in addition to finding grants.

In the end, the majority of the council chose to go with Millennium as well, despite its higher cost. Even Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, who also questioned why the administration did not recommend the lowest bidder voted in favor of Millennium, after looking into both companies, indicating that she trusted the township’s judgment.

“(The administration) did the research — that’s their job,” Casalino said. “We just vote to support it or not. So I’ll be supportive, but I’d just like to see what results we’ll have this year.”

Sayers said at the meeting that Millennium’s contract will require it to give a presentation at the end of the year on the number of grants obtained, so council members will know how successful it was. He told the Chronicle that the contract also will require the company to bring in enough grants to cover its fees and to go before the council whenever it is requested to do so. And although the agreement is worth more than Bruno’s would have been, the business administrator said the township is paying Millennium the exact same amount that its current grant writer, Alicia Skinner, is receiving.

According to the resolution, Millennium’s contract will take effect on May 1 — one day after Skinner exits — and will run through April 30, 2017. Either the township or the company can terminate the agreement on 14 days’ written notice.