Officials Tackle Daunting Task of Rebuilding Coastal Towns

Loss of property ratables, hefty cleanup costs among topics discussed at Senate panel hearing

Senate President Steve Sweeney (dark jacket) and Budget & Appropriations Chairman Paul Sarlo.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, state and local officials lavished a lot of thanks yesterday upon the thousands of emergency responders, policemen and firefighters who helped New Jersey navigate through its worst storm in its history.

Hurricane Sandy claimed the lives of 39 people in New Jersey. But it could have been much worse, officials said, if not for heroic efforts of many, including a Belmar responder who evacuated people even as he knew his own home was falling into ruin because of the storm, according to township Mayor Matt Doherty. State and local officials thanked the volunteers statewide who rescued stranded homeowners in canoes, kayaks and other boats. They even credited the tens of thousands of utility workers who restored power to the more than two million homes and businesses left without power, some for nearly two weeks.

But as state officials began a series of hearings to map out how New Jersey plans to rebuild the coast, which is the heart of a $38 billion tourism industry, more questions than answers were raised as a Senate committee began exploring how best to recover from the storm. It could be a long time before any consensus is reached.

Rebuild or buy out the hundreds of homes destroyed along the Jersey Shore? How are towns going to deal with the erosion of their ratable base with the loss of many of their most valuable homes? Who, if anybody, is going to clear the tons of debris floating in the state’s waterways?

“Folks, this is going to take some time and also take some dollars, both state and federal,’’ said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, which launched a bipartisan effort to come up with
plans to rebuild the Shore.

Toms River Business Administrator Paul Shives told the committee ‘’we’re going to need some help financially,’’ projecting it would take three to five years to rebuild the township, one of the hardest-hit areas along the coast. He estimated 30 percent of the township’s assessed ratable base was impacted by the storm.

Even the eastern section of the township off the barrier islands was devastated, according to Toms River Police Chief Michael Mastronardy, a possibility that was never envisioned.

“Our big issue right now is how to get the trash out of here,’’ the police chief said, echoing comments of other local officials.

The township is proposing to pay for many of those costs by going to the capital markets and floating a $35 million bond, which would pay overtime costs and other storm-related expenses, Shives said.

At one point, the, township’s costs for hauling debris off to landfills was running more than $1 million a week, he said.

Other Shore towns face the same issues. Brick Township Mayor Stephen Acropolis said of the municipality’s $1.3 billion in ratable base, probably $400 million was lost. The cost of removing debris in Brick is expected to run about $18 million, and that does not include the projected $15 million to $20 million in infrastructure repairs that may be needed, Acropolis said.

Acropolis wondered who was going to help his town cope with the loss of those ratables.

“Who makes up that difference?’’ he asked, noting unlike officials in surrounding communities, he does not want to plug the gap by going to the capital markets. “It has to be addressed by someone smarter than me.’’

He and others urged the state to relax permit requirements to allow rebuilding to occur without running into bureaucratic impediments imposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection and other state agencies. The DEP already has waived
certain permit requirements governing the rebuilding of public infrastructure, but local officials suggested even more easing of rules.

That view contrasted with those of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who attended the session held at the Toms River Municipal Building.

Sweeney noted that in the Middlesex County community of Sayreville, the federal government pumped more than $62 million into the municipality in each of the last two years to rebuild flooded property.

‘’You have to rebuild to a standard where we are not going to be throwing millions of dollars at it again,’’ Sweeney told reporters in a brief press conference held during the committee hearing. “There’s nothing wrong with rebuilding, but you have to do it smarter.’’

But his views on rebuilding and possible buyouts along the Jersey Shore were barely mentioned at the hearing, which mostly focused on how the state could make the communities whole once again.