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Investigation Reveals Sandy Energy Grant Program Riddled With Errors

NJ Spotlight also looked at the approaches taken by several other states to rank municipalities for mitigation aid following federal disasters. An expert in disaster relief who worked on the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008 (but did not wish to be identified due to current business relationships) said the state of Texas scored solely on the tier of the applicant, so critical facilities like police and fire stations received money before anyone else. He agreed with Mauriello’s assessment about New Jersey’s scoring system. “It opens up the process to criticisms of fairness if you establish too many criteria,” he said.

By contrast, the state of Connecticut took a more holistic approach to its awarding of mitigation aid following Sandy. Scott Devico with the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection says state officials scored on a series of eight questions. Some looked at similar factors as New Jersey, such as population and facility tier. But there were also broader considerations, such as:

  • How much does the measure directly mitigate the effects of a frequent natural hazard?

  • To what extent will it result in a long-term solution and require minimal maintenance?

  • To what extent will it eliminate future vulnerabilities?

  • Does this represent an innovative approach or best management practice?

A Chance to Respond

As part of its investigation, NJ Spotlight provided copies of the documents we obtained to both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, ran our findings by them, and offered them multiple opportunities to respond.

“This was done with great speed. It was a necessity to get it done and get things moving, and when you have something like that, you’re always bound to have some confusion,” said one administration official, who only agreed to speak anonymously. Municipal representatives and county OEM officials said that despite several mandatory training meetings, there was little guidance given on how to complete the forms, so different applicants took wildly different approaches.

Some simply submitted the completed letter of intent, while others attached all sorts of supporting documentation. In some cases, multiple requests were combined in a single LOI, while in others, they each appeared on their own application. Some municipalities included itemized cost estimates from engineering firms, which also tacked on contingency fees. It’s unclear how those doing the ranking would have accounted for such fees.

hoboken generators
Backup generators like this one at Hoboken's Fire Dept. HQ failed after taking on floodwater.

Meanwhile, the administration official we interviewed admitted that there may have also been confusion among members of the working group that did the scoring, so different people would have relied on different rules and methods to assign points.

“We’re going back over to reconcile to make sure they were evaluated on a consistent basis,” he said. “We’re fixing it, and we’re well aware of it,” he said.

“While legitimate scoring errors have been discovered and rectified, any assertion that they were anything but human data-input errors or attempting to connect those errors to unsubstantiated claims in the press is simply and categorically false,” wrote NJ DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese.

Given a list of specific questions, he provided partial answers to some, but declined to comment on others.

“These are all technical questions that would require our working group to provide specific answers,” wrote Ragonese, “But they are still in the process of completing their task. So I can’t insert you into the middle of their work.” The picture the administration paints of a grant decision process still up in the air and subject to all sorts of changes appears to be at odds, though, with the timeline of events that have transpired so far, as well as with the understanding of several individuals involved with the process and interviewed for this story.

Municipalities first submitted their letters of intent for the HMGP Energy Allocation Initiative in February and March of last year. The state Office of Emergency Management (or in some cases, state lawmakers acting on OEM’s behalf) sent out letters to applicants announcing allocation decisions in October, and the governor’s office issued a press release at the time. Meanwhile, elected officials in several municipalities including:

and a number of other communities went public with their allocation amounts.

Out of nearly 150 applicants who received initial award letters, a couple dozen had their amounts adjusted, and they received revised allocation notices in December. Later that month and in January, the state asked all applicants to submit detailed plans for how they intend to spend their awards. In early February, there was a workshop for grantees in Toms River to review the process of preparing memorandums of agreement to receive the money from FEMA. All indications seem to be that the process is moving full steam ahead.

That analysis is backed up by an official who was involved with the process and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. He said that the allocation amounts appeared to be relatively stable even back in the fall -- when they were first announced -- and that it’s unlikely there was still a lot of reassessment going on by this point. “Any adjustments that were made after September were only because there was recognition there were real problems with the scoring or for correcting new realities that came to light,” he said, adding that the only changes now would be strictly around the edges.

That also sounds accurate to Mauriello. “I don’t know how it’s still up in the air if those decisions are made,” he said. He added that the state asking applicants to submit their spending plans is a fairly significant milestone. “I guess it isn’t final until the spending plans are received and approved and all that, but that’s sort of a formality. I think the substance of the work has happened. It seems like if it’s not final, it’s pretty close to the goal line.”

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