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Investigation Reveals Sandy Energy Grant Program Riddled With Errors

Hoboken, state’s largest cities appear to have been shortchanged aid money

hoboken firehouse full
The backup generator at Hoboken's Observer Highway firehouse was destroyed when the building was surrounded by floodwaters.

The Sandy fund that’s at the heart of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s accusation against the Christie administration was allocated through a faulty selection and scoring process.

An ongoing investigation by NJ Spotlight and WNYC/NJ Public Radio has found that by using the Christie administration’s own scoring criteria, seven of Hoboken’s requests for backup generators should have been funded instead of just one, making it eligible for up to $700,000 more than it was originally awarded

Zimmer has claimed her city was shortchanged because she refused to support a redevelopment project favored by a close ally of Gov. Chris Christie.

The money in this particular program has yet to be distributed, and when these scoring inaccuracies were brought to the administration’s attention, officials said they were making adjustments and correcting problems and would take this investigation’s findings into consideration.

The process used to allocate funds, however, provides a window on the Christie administration’s handling of Sandy recovery money. Questions about the integrity of the scoring data appear to extend beyond a few errant numbers to structural issues concerning the methodologies used in the ranking process.

The problems run much deeper than just Hoboken. Many errors were discovered after only a cursory review of the data, and their occurrence is too varied and numerous to easily overlook.

A review of the initial scoring highlights many municipalities receiving unequal treatment, and anomalies such as Nutley -- which had comparatively little damage from Sandy or past storms -- getting a significant mitigation grant of $556,240, while places like Atlantic City and Belmar weren’t awarded any funding at all.

To be clear, the $25 million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Energy Allocation Initiative -- the focus of this investigation -- is only a small fraction of the overall Sandy aid money, but it’s one of the few grants given directly to local municipalities. And it’s also one of the few over which the Christie administration has complete control.

The Administration's Scorecard

The investigation’s findings are based largely on an analysis of the internal scoring spreadsheet the Christie administration used to conduct its rankings. The spreadsheet was obtained by the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and was shared with NJ Spotlight reporting partner WNYC/NJ Public Radio.

According to that document, as well as information supplied by the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding -- the department overseeing the state’s Sandy recovery effort -- applicants were awarded points for a variety of factors including population, density, and disaster history.

Using those criteria and the ranking system identified by state officials, NJ Spotlight conducted its own scoring and found instances of similar grant applications from different municipalities receiving unequal treatment, multiple cases of applicants being awarded points they never should have gotten or not earning credit – or the proper amount of credit -- for ranking criteria they met, and a scoring methodology that appears to have favored a few applicants at the expense of the majority in several key rankings.

NJ Spotlight and WNYC/NJ Public Radio have tried to get detailed answers from the Christie administration about how the allocations were awarded, but despite a public records request and weeks of calls and emails, we’ve only received partial explanations.

Four different administration departments participated in the scoring, and the initial award decisions were shared with towns and the press over four months ago. Yet, confronted with these findings, administration officials now say the awards were preliminary and may still be revised. If the scoring is to meet its own criteria, the list of revisions will be lengthy.

Assessing the Damages

In the aftermath of Sandy and the nor’easter that hit New Jersey about a week later, 2.7 million people were left in the dark, some for as long as two weeks. The power outage crippled the region, shutting down transportation networks, contributing to sewage overflows, and causing major delays for drivers waiting to fill their tanks.

In densely populated Hoboken, more than 85 percent of residents and businesses were without power for days. At the top of the hill on Hudson Street, a small number of row houses that still had electricity had extension cords and surge protectors strung out their front windows, attracting dozens of people who sat around chatting as they charged their laptops and cell phones. Down the block from city hall, PSE&G also set up a command post under a giant tent for residents to power their mobile devices.

At the Marian Towers senior housing complex in the badly flooded southwest section, it was chaos, with backup generators running on empty and only the building superintendent left to look after the 150 residents.

“We have no power, we have no heat, and there's a lot of elderly people in the building that really need help,” said Tony Sciarra, one of dozens of residents milling around the lobby the day after the storm. Without elevators, many tenants were trapped on the twelve-story building’s upper floors, unable to manage the stairs, and food supplies were running low.

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