Christie again blames U.S. for slow Sandy aid

Gov. Christie responds to a question at the town-hall meeting in Toms River.
Gov. Christie responds to a question at the town-hall meeting in Toms River. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 06, 2014

TOMS RIVER, N.J. Facing Sandy victims Tuesday in Ocean County, Gov. Christie trained his criticism on Washington, telling an audience at a town-hall event that onerous federal regulations and the slow release of aid by Congress had complicated the state's recovery.

As he spoke about the challenges in rebuilding after the October 2012 storm, Christie began by outlining hurdles he attributed mostly to faults of the federal government: No money arrived in New Jersey until May; the money hasn't covered the amount of damage incurred by residents; and to get money, residents have been forced to comply with a litany of requirements.

Pointing to $1 billion in aid that he said was "out the door or in the pipeline," Christie told about 500 people at the event in Toms River that the state had done what it could under the circumstances.

Of the federal obstacles, Christie said: "I tell you that not by way of excuse, but explanation. . . . To explain to you what comes along with, 'We're here from the federal government, and we're here to help.' "

The Republican governor was well-received at the event, held at an over-55 community. Christie's loudest applause came after a woman asked what seniors concerned about the implications of the Affordable Care Act could do.

"Elect a new president," Christie said, "that's what you do." He told the crowd that "you all know that when it's needed, I work with the president . . . but he's just dead wrong on this."

Throughout the event, Christie returned to his message that the federal government was impeding the state's progress in recovering from Sandy.

Christie's administration has been facing heightened public scrutiny of its distribution of federal aid and management of the recovery process. In December, the state fired its biggest Sandy contractor, terminating a three-year contract without announcement or explanation.

Christie said last week that his administration and Hammerman & Gainer Inc. had "fundamental disagreements on how this should be done," but did not elaborate. Sandy victims have criticized the recovery programs and the slow process by which aid has been awarded.

The administration also has had to fend off claims that top officials tied the release of Sandy aid to approval of a redevelopment deal in Hoboken. Christie officials say the allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer are false. The mayor has said she has been interviewed by federal investigators.

A new Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that Christie's approval rating for his handling of Sandy has declined sharply, with 54 percent of the state's voters now approving of the governor's efforts.

While still positive, that number is down 15 points since a poll in mid-January and 26 points since November, according to the poll results.

The results, made public Wednesday, "are a far cry from the nearly unanimous praise the governor had received for post-Sandy leadership," said David Redlawsk, director of the poll and a political science professor at Rutgers University.

Redlawsk said the drop in Christie's ratings on Sandy demonstrated "a real impact from recent claims involving withheld Sandy aid as political payback, as well as accusations of uneven and inappropriate distribution of recovery funds."

According to the poll results, Christie's overall favorability rating - 49 percent - is statistically unchanged from January, when it was 46 percent. The poll of 842 adults was conducted from Feb. 22 to 28, with a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

There didn't seem to be any direct criticism of the governor at Tuesday's town hall, his third in the wake of the George Washington Bridge controversy. For the third time, no one questioned him on that topic.

Several storm victims complained about the recovery process. One woman told Christie more could be done to inform homeowners about grants; Christie said another office had been opened recently in Ocean County to help residents.

"We're talking about staffing something up very quickly. . . . You're going to hire some good ones and some bad ones," Christie said, adding that it "takes some time" to resolve those problems.

At another point, he said: "I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free. We're setting up a whole separate government in essence to run these programs, and it's hard."

Responding to a man who said he was frustrated by the flood insurance process, Christie said that "in my view, the federal government has to get out of the flood insurance business." He advised that residents contact their representatives in Congress to share their frustrations.

One woman pressed the governor on the call he issued during last week's budget address for additional changes to the state pension system. "Why is it we keep going to the pensions to make up" deficits in the state budget, she asked Christie.

Christie said that he was trying to save the system, not dismantle it.

"There is no governor in the history of this state who has put more money into the pension system than I have," he said. His budget proposal for next year includes a record $2.25 billion payment into the system.

"I'm the guy making the hard decisions," Christie said.

Democrats argue that the reforms Christie signed into law in 2011 - requiring that public employees pay more toward their pensions - have already put the state on the right course and more are not needed.


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990

@maddiehanna

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