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New Jersey Releases Plan for Next Wave of Federal Sandy Relief Funds

'Storm czar” outlines plans for $1.4B; questions focus on allotment of earlier aid

Marc Ferzan, executive director of the New Jersey Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, aka the "storm czar."
Marc Ferzan, executive director of the New Jersey Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, aka the "storm czar."

New Jersey released its long-anticipated Sandy Recovery Action Plan yesterday, detailing how it would like to spend the second wave of federal Sandy recovery aid -- some $1.4 billion – in what reads like a lengthy "honey-do" list of lingering Sandy repairs: Fix homes, shore up the coastline, promote tourism.

A bit less than a third of the funds are slated to go to homeowners currently on wait lists for grants. Another $100 million would be used to buy and demolish homes that flood repeatedly. There's also $5 million to create a new tourism campaign, far less than the $25 million spent on last year's "Stronger than the Storm" ads.

Gov. Chris Christie's administration says the money will be used to replenish programs that are working, but are oversubscribed.

In addition, the state wants to earmark $535 million for infrastructure projects that would reduce future flood damage or minimize power outages during storms.

But even with the additional resources, demand for the recovery funds will outweigh their supply, cautioned Marc Ferzan, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding.

The state has identified $19 billion in unmet needs across the housing, infrastructure and economic development sectors.

"We have very difficult decisions to make in terms of allocating the $1.4 billion," Ferzan said.

A third funding allocation is expected, he added, though it may go entirely to the Rebuild by Design competition.

The plan “represents a step forward in both resiliency language and public involvement,” said Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy at NJ Future, “but misses key steps needed to ensure taxpayer dollars are wisely spent.”

Among those steps, she said, are more funding for transportation, water and energy infrastructure and well as more emphasis on planning efforts on the community level.

Meanwhile, housing advocates complained that it's more of the same as the first roundd, which they think underserved renters and didn't get to people who needed it most.

"The new plan doubles down on Christie's failed Sandy strategy," said Adam Gordon, a staff attorney for the Fair Share Housing Center, in a press release. "It provides a road map for more political spending over real relief that meets the needs of people most impacted by Sandy."

Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club of NJ said the plan “continues to ignore federal requirements for funding, including action on climate change, adopting more efficient building codes and implementing green infrastructure.”

"Noting that there was not enough consideration of sea-level rise . . . ," Tittel called for requiring buildings in flood-hazard areas to be elevated higher than the level currently required by the state, which currently set at 1 foot above what’s called for on FEMA flood maps. He said the required elevation should be 2, 3 or even 4 feet higher than the federal standard

Residents and stakeholders now have 30 days to review and submit comments on the plan before the state submits it to the federal government for approval, which could take up to 60 more days. The state will also hold three public hearings on the proposed plan, on February 11 at Stockton University in Galloway, February 12 at NJIT in Newark and February 13 at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.

Though discussion of the action plan was the stated purpose of Ferzan’s phone call with reporters on Monday, most of the participants were more interested in asking about other issues pertaining to the administration’s handling of the recovery effort.

There were several questions about the recent firing of HGI, the state’s largest private contractor, which had been criticized for its handling of the claims process to get Sandy survivors back in their homes. The administration quietly cut ties with the firm back in December, but never made an announcement, raising concerns about whether something improper may have been swept under the rug.

Ferzan called the termination a “mutual agreement” and said the administration had severed the contract because it saw “opportunities for efficiencies.”

He was also asked about recent media reports that portions of Sandy aid had gone to build a senior center in Belleville and luxury apartments in New Brunswick, places that suffered relatively minor damage in the storm.

Ferzan responded that such projects were needed to replace housing stock that had been destroyed in other, nearby Sandy-affected areas. And he said the administration chose these projects because it had a deadline for spending the aid money. These projects were “shovel ready,” so they could get started right away, he said. Any contention that politics has played a role in determining which municipalities get disaster recovery dollars, he said, was unequivocally wrong.

“There is nothing that is more highly regulated than federal disaster grants programs,” he said. “Everything must be documented. Everything is subject to review by agency auditors.”

When asked about making the state's internal decision-making processes for grant programs more readily available to the public, Ferzan cautioned against going overboard.

“It’s not that the administration doesn’t want to be transparent,” he said, but “we can’t just throw out reams of raw data.” He said officials were trying to balance being transparent with not giving out “too much information.”

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