Trenton — New Jersey grants to municipalities struggling to rebuild power infrastructure devastated by Super Storm Sandy were unevenly distributed under opaque criteria administered by a private group operating under the direction of the office of Governor Chris Christie, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The end result left big winners and many losers as only a tiny fraction of municipal applications to buy or fix generators serving critical facilities, such as shelters, emergency operations, police and fire stations, got funding.
Just a month before last November’s election, Gov. Christie’s office verbally notified the mayors awarded coveted energy grants from the state Hazard Mitigation Program – the program at the heart of allegations from Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken. From the 779 local public agency applications totaling more than $340 million in requests, Gov. Christie’s office selected only 144 applicants, fewer than one in five, and funded only $25 million, around 7% of total expenses.
Projects had to score at least 80 points derived from 12 factors to be eligible for funding but –
- The program was administered by a corporate-funded private nonprofit, called Sustainable Jersey, which is subject to scant external review;
- The funding criteria included grades from several state agencies, such as the Board of Public Utilities and the Department of Environmental Protection, under standards not spelled out, raising questions about their transparency and integrity; and
- Public notice was limited so as to not attract any uninvited participation.
Perhaps most significantly, the point system did not explicitly consider the need of the municipality or extent of the hazard to be mitigated. Nor does the state have a system for identifying emergency priorities.
“The Governor’s scoring spreadsheet looks more like a game of bureaucratic bingo than a rational, need-based selection process,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting the abrupt termination of the state’s main contractor and the growing uncertainty over distribution of Sandy money. “Many of these requests were virtually identical, yet a few were accepted while many others rejected. No wonder our mayors are confused and suspicious.”
The process created distinct losers and winners among applicant cities. For example –
- Hoboken applied for the projects totaling less than $1.8 million but was only funded for the smallest one at $136,000;
- Newark did even worse, asking for $13.4 million for 9 projects but got only five partially funded for a total award of $822,000; and
- By contrast, Rahway asked for approximately $930,000 for eight projects and received more than half--$520,000--for four of them, curiously each with an identical $130,150 price tag.
“With hundreds of vulnerable water supply and sewage systems left unaided, it is not clear how much safer New Jersey will be after all the ‘Hazard Mitigation’ funds are spent,” Wolfe added. “Ironically, the Christie administration put out press releases touting this as a model program but a closer look suggests there is little to brag about here.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability