Who is to blame for the slow pace of New Jersey’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy?
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez rejected frequent claims by Gov. Chris Christie that federal red tape is holding up the distribution of aid money, at a hearing (video) Wednesday before the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community in Washington D.C.
Senator Menendez said he’s even second guessing the decision to let the state distribute federal Sandy aid.
“I thought at the beginning, when we were dealing with the Sandy challenge, that giving the greatest flexibility possible to the state, even though this was federal money, was an appropriate way to ensure the quickest response to homeowners and business owners and communities,” the senator said in an interview after the hearing. “But the result has been, we’re on the 500th day since Sandy, that we have long delays, lost paperwork, and general mismanagement that has been characteristic of the recovery process.”
While Christie has frequently focused on federally mandated historic and environmental reviews of properties as a cause of delays, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said those reviews typically take only two weeks, or up to six weeks for complicated sites.
“We heard that federal requirements are not slowing down the recovery,” said Senator Menendez concluded.
Hearing testimony focused on issues relating to requirements that construction stop while grant applications are reviewed, giving waitlisted applicants access to their specific rankings, and the state’s management of contractors.
Donovan said the federal government is looking into the state’s dealing with a contractor, Hammerman and Gainer, Inc., and will be issuing a report in the coming weeks. He said as part of a second wave of federal funding, the state would be conducting outreach to ensure residents are aware of their eligibility for grants.
However, he disagreed with the idea that recovery is lagging, noting that his agency has distributed $1 billion of recovery aid thus far.
“I would note that this pace of spending is 48 percent faster than after Hurricane Katrina and more than two and a half times faster than after Hurricane Ike,” he said.
New Jersey state officials, including the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees many grants for homeowners, declined to attend the hearing. But the DCA did announce a change in policy Wednesday that allows homeowners to get funding for up to half their grant for construction costs upfront, instead of submitting payments for reimbursement.
DCA Commissioner Richard Constable said in a release the change “will help people get back in their homes faster.”