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Sandy aid to Hoboken on par with other NJ towns

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The city whose Democratic mayor said GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s administration tied Superstorm Sandy aid to her support for a real estate project has, so far, received a level of aid from state-run programs that is similar to what other towns got, a review of grant data shows.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer is no longer discussing her allegations that New Jersey’s second-largest city has been shortchanged on Sandy funds, that its aid is being held “hostage” as political leverage or that she feared further retribution in the next round of funding.

But her spokesman, Juan Melli, said the fact Hoboken is about on par with other towns in getting a modest amount of aid from state-run programs doesn’t mean the city has received what it deserves, given the damage it suffered when Sandy flooded virtually the entire city.

The problem, he said in an interview last week, is that New Jersey hasn’t created Sandy aid programs designed to help places like Hoboken, a city of 50,000 across the Hudson River from New York City. Most of the communities devastated by Sandy were towns on the Jersey shore.

“We’re a densely populated urban environment,” Melli said. “(The programs) make sense in other places, but they don’t make much sense here.”

A week ago, Zimmer claimed that two of Christie’s top Cabinet members told her in May that her city’s Sandy aid would be linked to whether she supported a real estate development that the administration favors. She said she wanted to go through normal channels and gather input from neighboring property owners and others before deciding whether she supports the project.

Zimmer said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told her that an ultimatum was coming directly from Christie. A Christie spokesman called her version of events “categorically false.” Guadagno also denied the claims.

Since making the allegations and talking with the U.S. attorney’s office, she said she was told to stop speaking publicly about the matter.

Zimmer’s allegations came the same month emails were made public showing that Christie’s staff orchestrated lane closures in the town of Fort Lee for apparent political retribution against its Democratic mayor. Christie apologized and denied knowing about the closures in a case now being investigated by federal prosecutors, who have subpoenaed records from the governor’s election campaign and the state GOP.

Hoboken has so far received two state grants from pools of state-controlled money, according to a review by the Associated Press.

The state awarded $25 million for energy projects to help deal with outages; Hoboken received $142,080 — the same amount as 39 other recipients.

The state also provided money to communities hit by the storm to hire experts and come up with long-term recovery plans; Hoboken’s $200,000 grant was the fourth-highest allocation among the 35 local governments in the program.

Melli said the city was told by state government officials last month not to bother applying for a third program offering grants and loans to revitalize business district because it was already oversubscribed.

To date, New Jersey has received $1.8 billion in emergency aid from the U.S. government to distribute as it sees fit but with federal approval and is in line to get an additional $1.4 billion in coming months. Most of the first chunk was earmarked for direct aid to homeowners, landlords and businesses to rebuild. Administration officials have said there may be more money for disaster prevention later.

From the first $1.8 billion, $290 million was to be used for flooding mitigation projects intended to reduce the impacts of future storms. But most of it went to programs to buy and knock down flood-prone properties and to elevate structures above expected flood levels.

Those are worthy programs, Melli said, but not ones useful in Hoboken.

Melli spoke to the AP on Wednesday. After being asked follow-up questions, he sent an email saying that officials in Zimmer’s office would not grant additional interviews.

Hoboken’s residents are packed into a two-square-mile area of apartment buildings, lofts and brownstones. Hardly any structures were destroyed by the October 2012 storm, but thousands were damaged and the city was essentially underwater. Zimmer, who was named after the storm to President Barack Obama’s national task force on climate preparedness and resilience, became an advocate for planning protective measures.

Marc Ferzan, who was appointed by Christie to oversee Sandy recovery, denied Zimmer’s charges on a conference call with reporters last week and said Hoboken hasn’t been penalized. Officials in Christie’s administration haven’t been willing to speak publicly about Zimmer’s claim since then.

Adam Gordon, a lawyer for the affordable housing group Fair Share Housing Center who said the administration has not been transparent enough with its Sandy programs, said the state doesn’t appear to have set priorities for which towns should get money to prepare for future disasters.

“They really seem to have taken a scattershot approach from the start to allocating this money,” Gordon said. “There are certain towns that are more at risk from these kinds of storms and climate change.”

There is one federal program, though, that could do what Zimmer has in mind by funding large-scale protection plans. The Rebuild by Design competition was sparked by the presidential task force that included Zimmer. The program was announced in June, after Zimmer said she received threats from Christie’s administration.

In it, design teams from around the world are looking at major projects along the East Coast. One plan is Hoboken specific. It would use open space to store water, along with levees and pumps to control its flow. The federal government plans to fund winning proposals, though the number of winners and the amounts have not yet been determined.

Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said states will have some say over which projects are chosen.

Zimmer has said she fears the governor won’t support the project unless she lets the disputed real estate project go forward.

Melli said Christie’s office has sent representatives to attend planning meetings but hasn’t voiced much support.

“We’ve never received a positive response,” he said.

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