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Sandy Story on Misallocation of Funds Earns Kudos from Senate President

Officials blame expensive errors that cost some cities hundreds of thousands of dollars on incompetence, not politics, call for better monitoring

sandy wreckage
In their scoring, state officials gave Belmar less credit for its disaster history than inland areas like Morristown, Mahwah, and North Caldwell.

New Jersey officials say a recent story by NJ Spotlight/WNYC finding the allocation of Sandy aid through a fund for backup generators was riddled with errors is further evidence of the need for new legislation requiring more monitoring over the Sandy aid process.

“This is exactly why we need to provide transparency, honesty, and answers to the thousands of New Jersey residents who continue to suffer from Hurricane Sandy well over a year later,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who’s proposed legislation that would simplify the application process for Sandy recovery programs and give storm survivors greater rights to appeal if they’re denied funding.

“[Last Wednesday’s] report provides further evidence that this administration has done an abysmal job of handling the distribution of funding and why we need the 'Sandy Bill of Rights,'” he wrote in a statement.

Officials are hesitant to blame politics for the screw-ups, noting that it could be “incompetence,” but agree that the NJ Spotlight story demonstrates something is wrong with the way Sandy funds are being handled.

“This is a very serious problem” said Bob Gordon, Chair of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. “There just doesn’t seem to be anyone monitoring how a number of these important programs are working. We may find that there are failings, but it’s after the fact, after some kind of audit is done. It this case, these problems were not found by an inspector general or an auditor within the state government. They were found by the media.”

Asked what his next step would be, he said he and his fellow committee members would need to decide whether to investigate the matter further. “There’s an awful lot on our plate now. I’ve been telling people these seem to be boom times for the oversight business," he said. “But clearly, Sandy relief is one of the more important things the government needs to be doing now.”

The lawmakers were reacting to the findings of a month-long investigation that discovered dozens of irregularities in the state’s internal ranking process for the $25 million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Energy Allocation Initiative. The original information 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.

The investigation found that state officials who did the scoring failed to properly follow their own criteria in many cases, so applicants were not treated equally and sometimes were awarded of hundreds of thousands of dollars more or less than they should have gotten.

The fund is at the heart of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s accusation that her city was shortchanged aid money because she refused to fast track a real estate development project supported by an ally of Gov. Chris Christie. Using the Christie administration’s own scoring rules, the investigation found that 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.

Although none of the money has gone out yet, the administration and many municipalities issued press releases last October, announcing the amounts of their awards. Now, towns are in the last stages of paperwork, outlining the final details.

Despite this, NJ Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese called the NJ Spotlight report premature. He said the grant decision process is not complete and that adjustments are still being made. Administration officials have also previously countered that Hoboken was properly awarded and that it had requested more than its fair share of Sandy aid.

No Backup for Belmar

Among the other towns NJ Spotlight found had been shortchanged through the state’s own scoring rules was Belmar, whose $170,000 request for a backup generator at an emergency evacuation center was denied. According to the analysis, the borough inexplicably received less credit for its past flooding than applications from places like Dover, Morristown, Mahwah, and North Caldwell -- which have comparatively little disaster history.

“It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me at all,” said Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, reached by phone over the weekend. “We’re one of the towns where the waves literally came ashore. We had 100 percent power outages in town, and we were operating a relief center off of a backup generator, and we had more extension cords running through the building than I’ve ever seen before, just trying to get power from one area to another,” he said. “We need to be assured that the scoring’s going to be accurate and towns like Belmar and the Jersey Shore are going to receive the dollars and resources necessary to rebuild, and it’s not going to end up in West Essex County.”

Belmar was eventually able to acquire backup generators and other equipment from surplus military stockpiles, so Doherty’s not terribly concerned about his town being denied for this specific grant request.

“In this case, I think we may be able to dodge that bullet because we have other generators,” he said. “My bigger concern is, as we continue to recover from this storm, how were they scoring other grant monies in their allocation? It’s going forward, knowing that this type of inaccurate calculation isn’t going to happen again.”

Doherty noted that while he’s a Democrat who publicly endorsed and campaigned on behalf of Gov. Chris Christie’s opponent Barbara Buono in last November’s campaign, he’s always felt he’s had a good, working relationship with Trenton and would thus be surprised if the scoring errors that affected Belmar were in any way politically motivated.

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