Press of Atlantic City

Sandy Aid Must Be Meted Out Faster, Menendez Says

A change that took effect Monday lets victims using their own contractors request half of their grants in advance

Press of Atlantic City — Thursday, March 13, 2014

Associated Press

Government officials must speed the way home rebuilding aid is getting to thousands of New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy, which can be done in part by revamping a burdensome application process, a senator from the storm-battered state said Wednesday.

"The problems here have been much larger, lasted much longer than the people of New Jersey should have to accept," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said at a hearing of a Senate Banking housing subcommittee that he chairs.

Menendez said 12,000 people have gotten preliminary approval for aid under New Jersey's largest federally funded home rebuilding effort, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program. But only 2,700 have been told they can begin construction — more than 16 months after the storm caused devastation along the East Coast.

The state, meanwhile, announced one change designed to get money to recipients faster. Those using their own contractors to rebuild homes can request 50 percent of their grants in advance under the change, which went into effect Monday.

Menendez said part of the problem has been that state officials have placed federally required environmental and historic preservation reviews at the end of the lengthy aid application process. That delays rebuilding because federal rules allow reconstruction work to begin once those reviews are completed, he said.

Federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told the subcommittee that New Jersey officials could reorder the application process, performing the environmental and historic reviews early on, without automatically jeopardizing federal aid.

Complaints about lost applications, long delays, lack of information and other problems in the aid-distribution process have been rampant in New Jersey. In recent weeks, Gov. Chris Christie's administration quietly terminated the state's $68 million contract with Hammerman & Gainer Inc. because it was unhappy with how the company was handling applications for housing recovery aid.

Also Wednesday, New Jersey Citizen Action and some business owners complained that the Stronger NJ program is not distributing funds quickly enough. New Jersey Economic Development Authority President Tim Lizura responded that he would like to award money faster, but he said many business owners are not submitting the records needed to make final determinations.

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