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Were Hoboken and Other New Jersey Towns Shortchanged on Sandy Aid?

Scott Gurian | February 3, 2014

An investigation into the data raises more questions than answers

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An in-depth analysis by NJ Spotlight in collaboration with WNYC/NJ Public Radio has discovered multiple irregularities in how funds have been allocated through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Energy Allocation Initiative -- the program at the heart of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations against the Christie administration.

An examination of the fund shows that despite a scoring system that awarded various towns and cities points for eligibility based on factors such as population size, population density, and previous FEMA claims, Hoboken has been awarded the same amount -- $142,080 -- as much smaller towns like Mt. Arlington and Old Tappan, neither of which experienced much damage from Sandy or previous storms.

And Hoboken was awarded far less than Nutley, which was allocated $556,000, despite being relatively unscathed by the storm.

Responding to inquiries from NJ Spotlight, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said a proper, objective process was followed in the scoring and ranking of these applications, and that it’s ongoing, so some of these awards might still be adjusted before they’re finalized and checks are cut. He said it’s unfair to draw conclusions from the data at this point. But many details about the behind-the-scenes process remain unclear, and the problems seem to extend beyond simply a few errant numbers.

This investigation's findings could lend credence to Zimmer’s claim that the Christie administration withheld Sandy aid from her city because she didn’t support a redevelopment project. Hoboken had submitted a $1.3 million proposal to purchase a dozen backup generators for use throughout the city, but it was awarded only about one tenth of what it asked for.

A list obtained from the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding -- the department overseeing the Sandy recovery process -- shows that dozens of municipalities have been awarded exactly the same amount as Hoboken, while others got more or less. So at first glance, nothing looks too out of the ordinary. But a closer examination raises questions about whether there might be more than meets the eye.

In addition to questions about Hoboken’s funding, the NJ Spotlight analysis has found that Jersey City -- the state’s second largest city -- was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars less than Newark and Elizabeth, cities of comparable size and storm damage. Jersey City’s mayor, Democrat Steven Fulop, has said he’s felt punished in other ways because he didn’t endorse Gov. Chris Christie for reelection last year.

No Easy Answers

Though there’s sure to be speculation, there’s no proof at this point that politics necessarily played a role in state decisions about who got help and who did not in the aftermath of Sandy. That charge has been vociferously denied by the governor’s office and state officials, and an analysis of the data found several examples of towns where Democratic mayors who endorsed Christie applied for aid and didn’t get it.

What does appear to be clear from numerous conversations with involved parties is that despite a series of mandatory briefings and training workshops -- where state officials say they did their best to explain the mechanics of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program -- the application and decision-making process remained murky and confusing for many.

NJ Spotlight has filed public records requests to obtain copies of letters of intent submitted by a number of municipalities that applied for the program. That has uncovered a wide variety of approaches and styles, with some municipalities submitting a separate proposal for each backup generator, for example, while others lumped their requests into a single LOI. Some representatives of municipalities surveyed said they were unaware of the ranking criteria and might have prepared their applications differently had they been better informed.

Speaking privately, one individual involved with the program said the general feeling was that there was little guidance given to municipalities and that state officials were basically flying by the seats of their pants, struggling to respond to an unprecedented disaster without getting overwhelmed and often figuring things out as they went along. In the end, this individual said, with hardly enough federal money in the program to satisfy the demand, it seemed destined for failure and “everyone got screwed” in the end.

As the governor’s office has rightfully noted in press releases responding to Zimmer’s allegations, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is not money for direct repair of Sandy damage, but rather aid to help municipalities prepare for future storms.

The HMGP kicks in once the President issues a federal disaster declaration for an area, as Obama did for eight coastal counties in New Jersey after Sandy. The amount of HMGP funding that's handed out to a particular state follows a formula based on the combined total of FEMA public assistance, FEMA individual assistance and Small Business administration loans. In New Jersey, total Sandy HMGP funding came to around $300 million.

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