Menendez blames Trenton for Sandy funding delays

Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said it was "time to . . . get the job done." LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE / AP
Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said it was "time to . . . get the job done." LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE / AP
Posted: March 14, 2014

WASHINGTON Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) on Wednesday sharply criticized the Christie administration's handling of Hurricane Sandy relief programs, blaming Trenton, not Washington, for long delays in getting aid to homeowners.

Menendez did not mention Gov. Christie by name, but in a hearing attended by two Democratic senators and no Republicans, it was clear he was trying to rebut the Republican governor's complaints that federal red tape was the biggest culprit slowing recovery from the 2012 storm.

"Some have chosen to point the blame at the federal government, but I say that it is time to stop finger-pointing and get the job done," Menendez said in an opening statement.

Speaking to reporters after the event, he said the Department of Housing and Urban Development should attach more rules to how New Jersey uses a second round of federal relief aid, $1.4 billion expected in coming months.

"There's going to have to be more standards set here," Menendez said.

Menendez directed his toughest criticism at former state contractor Hammerman & Gainer International, a Louisiana firm hired to oversee New Jersey's main program delivering aid to help homeowners rebuild.

He also said state, not federal, regulations had slowed the environmental reviews Christie cited as a major choke point, and suggested the governor spend less on advertising as a new round of funding comes to New Jersey.

The blasts came as the state announced new rules intended to get money to affected homeowners faster by advancing up to half of their grants. But Menendez said the announcement did not address the core issues he raised.

He held state officials responsible for Hammerman & Gainer's "months of gross mismanagement," said the company had spent 75 percent of its funding 12 percent of the way through its contract, and urged the state to recover some of the money it paid.

Hammerman & Gainer, hired in May, had its three-year, $68 million contract abruptly ended in December without public notice. The company had billed the state $51 million and has been criticized for improperly rejecting nearly 2,000 applicants. It has filed for arbitration against the state, saying it was asked to do work that "far exceeded" its capacity.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is reviewing the contract, Secretary Shaun Donovan said.

At a town-hall meeting March 4 in Toms River, Christie ticked through 12 steps he said residents had to complete to get money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I wish I had a magic wand and a checkbook," the governor said, but "the federal government keeps the checkbook, and they put all these different regulations in place that you have to follow or else you don't get the federal money, and these things are incredibly frustrating."

New Jersey has managed to get $1 billion either "out the door or in the pipeline," he said.

Christie aides cited comments Donovan made in a January television interview in which he said, "Overall, this money is moving faster than in any prior major disaster."

But as Donovan responded to leading questions lofted by Menendez, he said environmental reviews could be done concurrently with other state eligibility checks, cutting down the wait time for those seeking aid. Instead, state officials have waited to complete all other steps in the application before beginning environmental reviews, Donovan said.

"Wouldn't it be a better idea . . . to have the environmental reviews as early as possible in the process?" Menendez asked.

The risk for state officials is that if an environmental review is done and an applicant is later found ineligible on other grounds, the cost of the reviews would come out of the state's limited budget for administering its recovery programs.

Menendez and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) were the only senators to attend the hearing. Menendez said he invited Christie administration officials, but they declined to attend.

As the hearing began, the Christie administration announced plans to speed aid delivered through the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program, the state's largest housing-recovery program.

The change will let homeowners who use their own contractors to rebuild receive half their grants in advance. The new rule is aimed at helping people eligible for aid but will not help those still trudging through the application process.

Inquirer staff writers Maddie Hanna and Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.

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