NJ Senate President offers bill that aims to speed up Sandy aid

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) — who’s thought to be considering a run for governor in the next election — has introduced a bill to “codify and expand upon standards and safeguards for the treatment of individuals and communities seeking financial assistance in recovering from Superstorm Sandy.”

Motivated by widely reported problems and delays in the state’s delivery of rebuilding money to storm victims, the measure would require state officials to set clear goals for the distribution of future funding; allow individuals to monitor their grant status via a website; and provide detailed online information about overall relief-funding expenditures that would be updated on a monthly basis, to facilitate better oversight.

The bill has received a favorable reception from storm-victim advocacy groups, who say it would provide critical clarity that’s been missing from the state’s recovery efforts thus far. But state officials respond that it would be duplicative and unnecessary, since they claim they’ve already taken numerous steps to ensure a transparent process for those applying for aid. Either way, it’s unclear how far Sweeney’s proposal will make it in the wake of Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of his previous effort to pass a “Sandy Bill of Rights” last spring.

If Senate Bill S-2825 were passed into law, the NJ Department of Community Affairs — which is tasked with handing out much of the federal Sandy aid money — would have to develop timelines to give homeowners a clear sense of how long they should expect to wait before receiving the funding they’ve been promised. That would help reduce the uncertainty that many storm victims have complained has been inherent throughout the recovery process.

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To improve accountability, the state would also have to announce quarterly targets for future distribution of aid and commit to a minimum goal of handing out to all applicants at least 50 percent of the funding to which they’re entitled through RREM — the largest homeowner grant program — by October 29, 2016, the fourth anniversary of the storm. So far, about $420 million has been disbursed out of a total $1.3 billion ($225 million of which has yet to arrive from the feds).

In addition, state officials would be required to create a searchable and interactive website where grant applicants could log into their accounts to monitor their current status, including a checklist of all the required documents they need to submit to obtain funding and which items have yet to be received.

“Too many victims are still forced to wade through piles of paperwork from FEMA, the state, and insurance companies,” Sweeney said. “They have different caseworkers from various agencies involved in the recovery, which adds to the confusion and the difficulty. They deserve real answers and real help.”

In a joint news release, the Fair Share Housing Center, Latino Action Network, and New Jersey branch of the NAACP applauded the bill and called for its rapid passage.

“The transparency aspects of this legislation are critical,” said Latino Action Network President Frank Argote-Freyre. “Renters and homeowners impacted by Sandy deserve clear answers on when they can expect recovery funding, and Senator Sweeney’s legislation would help them get it.”

Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the Department of Community Affairs issued a lengthy statement, saying it’s already taken numerous steps to be clear and transparent.

“The RREM program has individually contacted every single one of the approximately 8,100 eligible Sandy-impacted homeowners in the RREM program about their grants, the rebuilding of their homes, and where they are in the program’s process,” spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said, explaining that all applicants are paired with both a housing advisor and a project manager to help them navigate the process. She added that homeowners can contact their advisors at any time if they have questions about their individual cases and that the state has also held close to a dozen informational sessions to address people’s questions and concerns.

Ryan also said that the state has provided a wealth of information on its various websites including renewjerseystronger.org and the Comptroller’s Sandy Transparency page, and it’s already submitting quarterly spending reports to HUD.

“We’re confident homeowners in the RREM program know where they are in the process and have resources readily available should they have questions about their individual situation,” she said.

That’s not necessarily the case, though, said Patrick Murray with the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which has been closely tracking people’s views of the recovery.

“What Senator Sweeney is proposing is very much in line with what we’re hearing from the folks who are stuck in the system,” he said. “They don’t know where they are. They don’t know how long it’s going to be. They don’t know why they were denied. There is a lot of confusion that we’re getting reports of from our panel of 2,000 Sandy victims that we’ve been following for two years.”

This is not the first time Sweeney has attempted to pass a measure of this sort. One year ago, he introduced a “bill of rights” for storm victims that would have required “plain language” explanations to storm victims of their status, and given them greater rights to appeal if they’re denied funding. That effort failed a few months later when Christie conditionally vetoed it, saying it was “inconsistent with federal laws and requirements” and would introduce “unquantifiable administrative costs, that would prove impossible to implement, frustrate sound future-disaster planning, and all but certainly exceed federal funding for program administration.”

“When Christie vetoed this the last time, there wasn’t much of a price to pay,” Murray said, noting that most residents of the state who weren’t directly affected by the storm have put the Sandy recovery behind them. Therefore, he thinks the outcome this time will likely be the same.

“Simply vetoing it and keeping everything under wraps probably doesn’t do Christie much harm right now,” he said. So if this bill is essentially dead on arrival, why introduce it in the first place?

“I think there is a political calculation that maybe with Christie being weakened, this might be the bill that can peel off a few Republicans in an override vote, which of course would be a political victory for Sweeney,” he explained. “And I think there’s going to be a calculation on the other side that there’d be more hell to pay from Chris Christie in overriding his veto than there would be for answering their constituents back in the shore districts.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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