The bar was set similarly high in the population ranking category: Newark and Jersey City -- the state’s first- and second-largest municipalities -- only received five out of a possible 20 points. Elizabeth -- the state’s fourth-largest city -- did not receive any points. Full credit was awarded, however, to a handful of county applicants and statewide agencies, which administration officials said had the effect of prioritizing "regional" projects, as called for by the recommendations of the President's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force.
In some instances, a small change in points made all the difference between whether a community got pushed over the minimum threshold to receive funding or whether it got no funding at all. In other cases, differences in how applications from various municipalities were treated meant that some towns and cities potentially received hundreds of thousands of dollars more or less than they should have, according to the scoring criteria laid out for the program.
Mark Mauriello worked at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection for three decades, eventually rising to the role of Acting Commissioner before leaving in 2010 to work in the private sector. During his time at the agency, he participated in several working groups just like this one, and he’s quite familiar with the mechanics of how the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program works.
Mauriello reviewed the state’s internal scoresheet at the request of NJ Spotlight, and he concluded that the way state officials conducted their rankings appears to be much more complicated than it should have been.
“Whenever you see these things, you don’t know the subjectivity of who’s populating these columns and these boxes,” he said, “And obviously, the more of these columns you have, the more opportunities you have to check off a box and add weight or points to a certain proposal. It just seems to me that this thing by nature creates a lot of opportunity to really make funding decisions that might not be in the best interest of the state.”
Rather than rank the applicants based on their FEMA public assistance history following federally declared disasters, Mauriello said a much better gauge of the needs of municipalities would have been to look at theirto capture a wider snapshot.
“I find it a little unusual that the selection criteria wouldn’t include NFIP claims, which represent a broader scope of impacts, hazards, and I would argue opportunities for mitigation,” he said.
Others like Bill Wolfe of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility raised questions about the relevance of awarding points based on whether the applicant had conducted an energy audit (state officials called it an indication of “efficiency and forethought”).
Using the scoring criteria former NJDEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello suggested the state should have used, NJ Spotlight mapped the towns and cities that applied for funding through the HMGP Energy Allocation Initiative to see the relationship between their past flooding history and the percentage of their mitigation grant requests that were honored.
To level the playing field, we focused on the subset of requests municipal applicants made for Tier 1 projects -- like police stations, fire departments, and shelters. We excluded the handful of municipalities that are not part of the National Flood Insurance Program.
In some cases like Point Pleasant, Passaic, and Little Falls, there appears to be a strong correlation, with municipalities that have the most flooding history receiving the largest portion of requested aid. In others, towns like Franklin Township and Caldwell applied for mitigation funding through this program but did not receive anything. That seems fair, given that they have little history of flooding.
But there are also places like Mount Arlington, Plainsboro, and Winslow, which received much greater award allocations than they should have, if they were ranked strictly by their flood histories. Meanwhile, Atlantic City, Tuckerton, Belmar, and Keyport did not have any of their grant requests honored, but they probably would have if their flood histories had been a primary factor in the ranking. Zoom in to see greater detail.