Gov. Chris Christie heard more tales of woe from people still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy at his latest town hall meeting yesterday.
It was the sixth Q&A he’s held in Belmar, as well as the sixth town hall he’s held since the Bridgegate scandal erupted in January. But the governor encountered a friendlier crowd here than at some other recent events.
A few residents asked questions about education and good governance topics, but the majority of the focus was people’s individual Sandy-related situations. Questioners shared tales of fighting with their insurance companies, dealing with recurrent flooding problems and continuing to wait for state grant money. They also asked about plans to construct dunes and to dredge rivers still clogged by storm debris. And they shared their concerns and suggestions.
A resident of Brick Township recommended that the rules be changed so people like herself could start rebuilding while waiting for grant money and get reimbursed after the fact. Christie said he’s raised the issue multiple times with federal officials, but was told there’s a specific federal statute that prohibits that.
Another person wanted to make sure that the dunes would be handicapped-accessible so her disabled husband would still be able to go to the beach. The governor assured her that the state would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Responding to criticism that his administration was sitting on aid money, Christie said that all the funding for housing programs has already been allocated and that the state has listened to people’s concerns and made changes, such as allowing them to use their own contractors.
There were also suggestions that in-state contractors should do all the repairs.
“We’re trying to rebuild 365,000 homes,” Christie responded. “There’s simply not enough contactors in New Jersey to do all that work in a timely way.”
He also had some recommendations of his own, including that the federal government should get out of providing flood insurance and let the private market take over.
“What we really need is more competition in the industry,” he said, calling on people to contact their members of Congress to complain.
As at past town halls, several members of the governor’s cabinet, including Sandy “Storm Czar” Marc Ferzan, were also in attendance, but none of them said anything except Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, who was called on to answer a few detailed questions pertaining to dunes and waterways.
Christie acknowledged that there have been problems with the state’s handling of the recovery process.
“Let me be, once again, the guy to admit that this has not gone perfectly,” he said. “Far from it. This is the first time we’ve ever done this.”
But he asked residents to be patient. He said he’ll do his part by continuing to listen to their concerns and pledged to try to continue holding at least one town hall meeting a week.
Though the overall tone of the event seemed more supportive than at some previous town halls, and none of the questions were very challenging, there was still some anger evident in the crowd. Before the event began, about a dozen demonstrators stood quietly across the street, holding signs saying things like, “We have not forgotten Bridgegate,” “Tourism ads won’t pay my rent” and “If I were a Sandy contractor, I’d have gotten paid by now.”
Several small-business owners affected by the storm also spoke to members of the media about their frustrations with delays in getting aid through the Stronger NJ Business Grants program. Christie had said at a previous town hall that there was little demand for the program, but that’s not the case, they said.
Marilyn Schlossbach and her brother own four restaurants in Asbury Park and Normandy Beach. They applied for grant money last May, but most of it has yet to come through, and they’ve received few updates on the status of their applications.
Schlossbach said she’d much rather be back running her business than attending a town hall where she was unlikely to get in a question, but felt she had no choice.
Her opinion of the governor?
“Originally, I was very much behind him. And I’m a Democrat,” she said. “But over the last six months, I’m seeing him talk like everything is great. It’s not great for any of us. It has been one of the hardest years that I’ve ever been in business. And I don’t think any politicians really understand what we’re all going through.”
Speaking with reporters, Neptune resident James Spinelli also expressed frustration trying to understand just what he was going through. He has signed documents, dated December 5 , stating that he’s been awarded $180,000 through two state grant programs to tear down his house, which was flooded beyond repair in the storm. Nearly four months later, he has yet to receive a penny.
“I’ve got everything right here. It’s all signed! Everything!” he said waving copies of his paperwork. “What are they waiting for? I’m not on the waiting list. I have the grant! I’ve been awarded it!”
Spinelli had just spoken to representatives from the NJ Department of Community Affairs, who’d set up a table to answer questions from town hall participants. He said they were scrambling on their computers to figure out what had gone wrong.
“I told these people I’m tired of taking numbers, I’m tired of filling out this application and that application.
I’ve already done it all! I’ve done everything! What more proof do you want that I need this money to do my house?” he asked.
The timing of yesterday’s town hall coincided with the federal deadline for the state to turn in its spending plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the second $1.46 billion of Community Development Block Grant Sandy aid. Christie said he hopes the plan will be approved and that money can start flowing by the end of April. And he’s optimistic that the state will get word of a third batch of federal aid money in late May or early June.
It remains unclear, though, what the total will be after all is said and done. The governor repeated the prediction he’s voiced in recent weeks — he now expects the state to receive a total of just $10 billion to $15 billion in federal Sandy aid, a drop from the $20 billion to $25 billion he mentioned last spring.