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How Will State Spend Next Batch of Federal Funding for Sandy Recovery?

Christie administration expected to release action plan soon

mystic island
A neighborhood of homes in the process of being elevated in Mystic Island, NJ

Following up on the $1.8 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding New Jersey received last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced in October that the state will receive a second installment of $1.46 billion to continue its Sandy rebuilding and recovery efforts. But before any of that money can make it to the Garden State, officials in the Department of Community Affairs need to create an action plan, detailing their priorities for how they intend to spend the funding.

Speaking in a hearing before lawmakers a few weeks ago, DCA Commissioner Richard Constable said his department anticipates releasing a draft of its plan by the end of this month. The public will then have a chance comment on it before a final version is officially adopted and submitted for federal review. There are a few key differences, however, between the process this time and the process that culminated in the state’s original action plan for the first $1.8 billion in funding.

For starters, HUD is requiring that New Jersey and other recipients of this second batch of Sandy funding focus more on mitigation efforts than in the past and prepare risk assessments taking into account the expected impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise. The feds want more focus on infrastructure-related projects and initiatives, though Constable said the Christie administration also intends to direct a significant portion of the money to continuing housing recovery needs.

A 30-Day Comment Period

Another significant difference is that the state only had a seven-day comment period before adoption of the last action plan, but this time -- in a nod to groups calling for more transparency and public participation -- HUD has required a 30-day period during which public hearings will be held and written comments accepted for consideration.

That’s caused some behind-the-scenes grumbling from administration officials, already under pressure for not getting Sandy aid into the hands of storm survivors as fast as many people would like. Privately, they view this as yet another delay for which they’ll ultimately be blamed. But many groups working on the storm recovery see things differently.

Seven days was “just too short a timeframe to do a really thoughtful, thorough job that includes lots of diverse voices,” said Kevin Walsh, Attorney and Associate Director at the Fair Share Housing Center, which has campaigned on behalf of renters and low income homeowners affected by the storm.

Walsh’s group has been a thorn in the side of the Christie administration, criticizing officials handling the Sandy recovery for a lack of transparency, not giving enough aid for low income minorities, and failing to provide explanations when denying funding to grant applicants. He said he thinks the 30-day comment period will actually result in speeding things up, getting the recovery to proceed more efficiently going forward, and hopefully avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the past.

“Being thoughtful about how we set up these spending programs saves us time in the long run,” agreed Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group that advocates for “smart growth” and responsible land-use policies. “As taxpayers, we all have an interest in making sure that government funds aren’t wasted on rebuilding in places where people are going to be at risk of being washed away,” she said, noting that she thinks providing more opportunities for public involvement is time well-spent.

As for what advocacy groups will be looking for from this second batch of funding, everyone interviewed for this story seems to have their own bucket list of priorities.

Sturm and her group are thrilled that the feds are requiring New Jersey to conduct a risk analysis for future infrastructure projects to ensure that new construction isn’t built in places vulnerable to damage from future storms. “It could potentially be a tool that private developers use before they invest in projects,” she speculated, “that makes insurance companies more profitable because their portfolio is less at risk, and that local officials can benefit from as they’re trying to figure out where the best places to grow are.”

Beyond that, Sturm is hoping for more money to be earmarked for local planning efforts, and she’d like to see more encouragement for shore towns to join FEMA’s Community Rating System, a program to help them make themselves more resilient while saving money on their residents’ flood insurance premiums.

While understanding that many individual homeowners are still very much in need, Cindy Zipf of Clean Ocean Action thinks the recovery effort needs to transition from the immediate rebuilding that was the focus of the last year to larger issues of infrastructure and the environment. “It’s rare we have an opportunity to invest in our underground pipeline system for stormwater and for sewage,” she said, for example, so she hopes the forthcoming recovery money can be used to fix some of the state’s underlying vulnerabilities that Sandy brought to the forefront. “It’s maximizing those dollars for the most people but also the most environments and those marine resources that we depend on so importantly for our economy.”

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