The New Jersey Department of Transportation spent an extra $4 million in 2022 to hire contractors to cut grass along highways and state roads after the state sidelined over 140 tractors because three of them caught fire, according to records obtained by POLITICO and a DOT spokesperson.
Nearly half the fleet of tractors remains out of service as they undergo fire-preventative renovations, according to DOT spokesperson Jim Barry, costing the state resources in addition to the millions it paid to hire interim contractors.
The scenario was the subject of an internal state complaint dated June 2022 filed to a division within the Treasury tasked with overseeing disputes with state vendors. The state filed the complaint against the company from which it purchased 147 John Deere tractors and mowing attachments in 2018 and 2019, at a price of approximately $11.4 million, according to the complaint.
An independent fire investigation commissioned by the DOT — attached to the complaint and obtained by POLITICO through a records request — found that design flaws from John Deere led to exhaust leaks that were an “underlying” cause of the fires. It also found that the company that manufactured mowing attachments, Diamond Mowers, had a design flaw that trapped combustible debris. The report concluded that both companies as well as Power Place, the middleman the state purchased the tractors from, “failed to provide warnings about the fire hazard.”
A spokesperson for John Deere declined to answer a detailed list of questions. Diamond Mowers did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview, Power Place president Gus Ottoson said that while his company was served the complaint, they did not have a role in modifying, altering or manufacturing the tractors or their attachments. Ottoson also said that while his company, John Deere and Diamond Mowers conducted maintenance training for their products, he could not comment on whether those trainings were being followed or on the specifics of the fire investigation.
“We just sell a widget,” he said in an interview. “Home Depot sells a lawn mower out of a box — it’s essentially the same thing, although a lot more complex.”
Talks are ongoing between the DOT, John Deere, Diamond Mowers and Power Place to add fire-preventative fixes to the rest of the fleet, according to Barry. Currently, 53 percent of the tractor fleet is operational after fire-preventative fixes while the remainder of the tractor fleet undergoes safety renovations, according to Barry. Costs for the renovations will not be paid for by the state, according to Barry.
According to Treasury spokesperson Darryl Isherwood, the DOT can take steps to sue the vendor or “seek monetary damages” if it chooses, although it is unclear if it will take those steps.
“We’ll reserve our decision on how to approach that $4 million with John Deere until we get all our mowers fixed,” DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said Tuesday afternoon when lawmakers asked during a budget hearing about POLITICO’s reporting. “Then we’ll have the opportunity to make the decision on how to pursue the $4 million.”
A design flaw that risked every tractor in the fleet, documents say
The complaint, filed with the Contract Compliance Audit Unit, initially said $6.4 million would be spent on interim grass cutters. But according to Barry, the final costs came in lower than what was initially estimated and totaled around $4 million for 2022. The DOT does “not plan to use contractors to cut grass this year” Barry said in a statement.
According to the complaint and fire investigation, three tractors caught fire between October 2020 and August 2021. In one instance, according to the fire investigation, the tractor fire grew so intense that “a fire extinguisher would have been useless.”
According to the fire investigation done by Atlantic Professional Services Inc., all three fires had exhaust gas leaks, which was attributed to “defectively installed” parts from the John Deere factory.
“John Deere is clearly responsible for the for the exhaust leaks that provided the heat to ignite the fires,” according to the investigation
Diamond Mowers, which creates mowing attachments for the tractors, had a design flaw that let debris accumulate in equipment parts that was difficult to see and access, which “create[d] a risk of fire in every tractor of the NJDOT fleet” according to the investigation.
According to Ottoson, Power Place is in the process of refurbishing the tractors and John Deere and Diamond Mowers will reimburse his company for the price of the renovations. Ottoson said he anticipated the entire fleet to be refurbished by summer.
Ottoson said he was not aware whether John Deere or Diamond Mowers would reimburse the state for the millions spent on interim contractors. Ottoson said the responsibility did not fall on his company.
“If you went to Home Depot and bought a lawn tractor and for whatever reason it failed and you had to hire interim people to cut your grass, Home Depot isn’t going to reimburse you for that,” he said. “It’s kind of apples and oranges, but it’s comparable in a way. It’s unfortunate but it was the state’s decision.”
Power Place’s contract with the state that procured the tractors that caught fire is on “pay only” status, meaning that the state cannot buy new materials under that specific contract — in this case the John Deere 5100E tractors — but can continue paying for what was already purchased.
The state still has active contracts directly with John Deere to purchase tractors, although spokespeople for the DOT and the Treasury emphasized that the John Deere contracts are for a different tractor model — not the one that was catching fire.