1/21/16 ‘Disappointing’ disaster aid:  Weak application blamed as N.J. loses out on millions

1/21/16 ‘Disappointing’ disaster aid:  Weak application blamed as N.J. loses out on millions, Herb Jackson, The Record
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New Jersey, whose congressional delegation fought to make sure it could get a piece of the $1 billion offered to help minimize damage from future disasters, lost out on millions — and almost got nothing at all — because its application was so much “weaker” than the competiton’s.

New Jersey’s $15 million planning grant was the smallest of the 13 awarded on Thursday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for “disaster resiliency.” It was less than one-tenth of the $176 million New York City got and less than half of New York State’s $36 million.

New Jersey came close to getting nothing at all, despite state officials being warned they were in trouble before the decision was made, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said.

“New Jersey submitted a weaker application on several measures,” Castro said.

Both Governor Christie’s office and his critics are calling for an investigation of what went wrong.
The state had asked for more than $300 million, most of it to control flooding in the Meadowlands.

The state was among 40 finalists that made the first cut last June, and each |application was scored on a series of |criteria.
New Jersey “received a score that was at the cutoff to receive funding,” Castro told reporters in a conference call. While Castro said HUD is barred by law from divulging details about the scoring for 30 days, he said the state’s request had “deficiencies compared to some of the other applicants’.”

The announcement angered several state officials, especially members of Congress who had opposed the competition from the beginning because the $1 billion came from the nearly $60 billion package passed in 2013 primarily for Superstorm Sandy recovery.

“The people of New Jersey got a raw deal and we need to figure out why it happened,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who had battled with HUD and secured a pledge that at least $181 million of the $1 billion would go to New Jersey and New York. “Something went very wrong here and New Jerseyans deserve answers.”

‘Beyond disappointing’

New Jersey’s application included $236 million for a series of berms to prevent flooding in the Meadowlands, and Christie’s office noted that in June 2014, HUD had approved $150 million for a similar project in a different competition.
“This decision is beyond disappointing,” Christie spokes­man Kevin Roberts said. “The federal government has walked away from a New Jersey project that it deemed worthy of $150 million in funding as recently as June of 2014. HUD’s decision to offer New Jersey such a limited sum is ludicrous, given the substantial needs our residents still face. We agree completely with Senator Menendez that this demands more answers.”

This is not the first time controversy surrounded a federal grant application by Christie’s office. In 2010, Christie fired his education commissioner over the handling of a critical mistake on the application that led to the state narrowly missing a $400 million education grant.

In that instance as well, Christie initially blamed the Obama administration.

In the competition for disaster protection grants, applicants were supposed to show projects could be scaled back if a grant was less than requested, and that federal funds would leverage other non-federal funds if granted. Castro said New Jersey lost points on both of those criteria.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, noted that the flood control project should have been segmented into phases so that at least some of the work could have been approved.

“They went all-or-nothing on these projects and got nothing,” Pascrell said. While the state got feedback from HUD during the application process, “somehow the final application looked darn close to the original,” he said.

“I really hope that New Jersey did not drop the ball,” he added.

Out of 10 possible points awarded for leveraging non-federal funds, New Jersey got one point, Castro said. In its application, the state said it would “explore commitments by all levels of government, the private sector and philanthropic community as the project is further refined through feasibility.”

New Jersey cited $26 million that the state Department of Environmental Protection would spend over 50 years to operate and maintain Meadowlands berms, but it indicated federal funding would make up part of that cost. New York City, by contrast, identified $108 million in city funds that would be put toward its projects.

Christie criticized

The head of an advocacy group formed by Sandy survivors still trying to get back into their homes said the state did not have the leadership it needed to secure funds to protect from future storms.

“Governor Christie and his administration appear to have dialed in their efforts to obtain critical funding to support our state and region, just like the governor will be dialing it in from the campaign trail in New Hampshire this weekend instead of coming home to lead our state through what could be a another record storm,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project.

The news was welcomed, however, by Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, who had opposed the plan for berms in the Meadowlands when they were discussed at a public meeting.

“They actually were planning to build these alleged resiliency structures on conservation land,” Sheehan said. “At the last meeting, my testimony basically amounted to me telling them if they tried to put dikes and berms on conservation land, we could tie them up in court forever. Now I don’t have to worry about tying them up in court.”

Other grants announced were to New Orleans, $141.3 million; Virginia, $120.5 million; Iowa, $96.9 million; Louisiana, $92.6 million; Minot, N.D., $74.3 million; California, $70.4 million; Shelby County, Tenn., $60.4 million; Connecticut, $54.3 million; and Springfield, Mass., $17 million.

Email: jackson@northjersey.com Blog: northjersey.com/thepoliticalstate