New Jersey deserves ‘Sandy Bill of Rights’

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To the editor:

Superstorm Sandy knocked us down and we have been slow to get up. Over a year and a half after the historic storm made landfall, too many of our residents are not getting the answers they need or the aid they deserve. This is unacceptable, and it is why I introduced legislation to establish a “Sandy Bill of Rights” that guarantees everyone is treated fairly and equally.

Unfortunately, Gov. Christie recently vetoed this legislation calling the bill “partisan.”  Let me be clear, there is nothing “Republican,” “Democrat,” or “partisan” about getting people the resources and answers they deserve.  And if the bill is so “partisan” why did it pass unanimously in both the Senate and Assembly with the full support of Republicans?

With billions of recovery dollars set to pour into New Jersey, I have no intentions of letting this fight end. That’s why I am asking my Republican colleagues to do something that they have yet to do under this administration and that’s to put aside their partisanship and override the governor’s veto.

There are far too many New Jerseyans still out of their homes.  There are far too many businesses struggling to rebuild.  As we celebrate the official start of summer at the Jersey Shore, it is more important than ever to continue this fight for our families, friends, neighbors and fellow New Jerseyans who are still adversely affected by the Super Storm that changed our lives in October 2012.

I know their heartache because I met with the victims and saw firsthand the devastation wrought on their homes and lives. 

I traveled to Perth Amboy, Toms River, Moonachie, Keansburg and Linden, among other towns, and spoke to people who had many questions but who are still waiting for answers from their elected leaders and the bureaucracy created to administer billions of dollars in aid.  

At the time I introduced the Bill of Rights, only 4 percent of the aid available had been given out ($25 million out of $600 million).  Worst of all, the Fair Share Housing Network reported that 80 percent of all those denied aid were actually eligible to receive it.

A line of victims told a legislative committee that a state contractor responsible for getting people back in their homes had repeatedly lost their applications and often couldn’t answer the most basic of questions. The Christie administration quietly cancelled the contract with this firm but not before paying them millions of dollars.

It would be easy to write these all off as simply the problems of handling a task this big. But in New York, where they faced issues of similar scope and size, things went much more smoothly.  On the year anniversary of the storm, data from FEMA indicated that New York had provided $1 billion in individual assistance funds and $857 million in housing assistance; both are more than twice the amount of New Jersey.  Moreover, New York relied on local organizations to help with the recovery process, not an out of state vendor.

These examples, along with countless others, are why I proposed a Sandy Bill of Rights. I want to ensure a more transparent, easy to understand process that allows victims to obtain the information and details that are essential to getting them the help they deserve. We cannot make victims out of victims.

The Sandy Bill of Rights would do several things, including requiring a plain language explanation of what is needed to be eligible and to apply for Sandy recovery programs; the right to know where the relief application stands and what additional information is needed; the right to know why the application was rejected or why it was placed on a waiting list, and the right to appeal a denial of funding.

In addition, I submitted a plan to the Department of Community Affairs that calls for more assistance to homeowners and renters during the second phase of Sandy recovery funding. This plan detailed what we should have seen during the first phase of Sandy recovery: a concerted, localized effort to get people back into their homes as quickly as possible. We wasted millions on HGI, a company from outside the state that didn’t know New Jersey. Our local, community-based organizations can do this quicker, cheaper and more effectively.

It has taken far too long for victims to get the help they need to recover.  Often, they have been denied aid for vague or unspecified reasons. 

That must and will end with an override of the governor’s veto of the Sandy Bill of Rights. 

Steve Sweeney
Senate President


 

Senate President Steve Sweeney represents the Third Legislative District, which includes portions of Gloucester and Cumberland counties and all of Salem County.  Follow him @NJSenatePres


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