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NJ Officials on Misallocation of Sandy Funds: Incompetence or Politics?

Monday, March 10, 2014

New Jersey officials say a recent story by WNYC/NJ Spotlight 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 WNYC/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 WNYC/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.

Gordon took a similarly cautious stance. “I’m reminded of something that Napoleon supposedly said that ‘one should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by pure incompetence,’” he said, adding that he didn’t know which was at play here. “If it’s incompetence, something’s wrong with the process. How do we fix the process so there’s some kind of checking mechanism or evaluation mechanism so that we catch these situations early on?”

According to the WNYC/NJ Spotlight investigation, Jersey City also received potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars less than it should have if its generator requests had been treated the same as other municipalities like Rahway and Brick Township. The state’s second largest city received an allocation of less than $160,000, compared to the $825,000 awarded to Newark and $639,000 announced for Elizabeth -- cities of comparable size and flooding history.

Mayor Steven Fulop says city officials will now conduct an assessment, looking closely to see where they were shortchanged in the scoring. “Initially, we were surprised by what the dialogue was between the state and the city, and we were always looking to kind of correct it,” he said. “I think any municipality always feels like they can get more, but, you know, we weren’t in a position nor would we just go out there and make accusations knowing that there were many municipalities that were devastated.”

Asked if the new information that’s come to light changes his perspective, he replied that “It’s become a little more concerning, there’s no question about it.”

Meanwhile, back in Hoboken, Mayor Zimmer issued a diplomatic response to DEP spokesman Ragonese’s statement that there may have been “legitimate human data-input errors” in the scoring process.

“I thank NJ Spotlight and WNYC for their continued in-depth analysis and for demonstrating that investigative journalism is not a lost art,” she said. “I applaud the DEP for publicly acknowledging that serious mistakes were made in the energy allocations that they announced last year and for taking steps to make the necessary corrections. I look forward to seeing the final allocations, and I am confident that when the work is completed and the scoring process is objectively and fairly applied, Hoboken will receive the energy grant funds to which we are entitled.”

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