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Your Tax Dollars At Work…Or Not

I Didn’t Want To Have To Write This

ortley

Sandy Damage
Ortley Beach, NJ

This is an article that I wish I didn’t have to write. I’m an optimist and I want to believe that given the opportunity, people in positions of authority will do their best. I want to believe that even when I disagree with someone and their approach to a problem, that they are acting in good faith and just see a different path to a solution than I do. I always keep open the possibility that I’m wrong.  After all, I’m not the first person in the history of the world to never make a mistake or come to an incorrect conclusion. Nobody in public life ever takes a particular action convinced that its wrong.  I’ve also been in positions of authority, so I have some empathy for public officials charged with difficult or complex jobs. I tend to be tolerant of differing points of view because intelligent discourse usually leads to better policies. I say all of this because I want to give the benefit of the doubt to the folks guiding New Jersey’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy-but I can’t.

I would like to be be discussing the progressive and forward thinking approach to rebuilding that New Jersey has taken in the aftermath of Sandy. But I can’t. I would like to describe the intelligent and measured plan to spend the billions of dollars in federal Sandy aid that has poured into the state. But I can’t. I would like to list the dozens of coordinated programs designed to re-shape the future of New Jersey as a place where vulnerability to future storms and the effects of climate change on a coastal state are being adequately addressed. But I can’t. I would like to say that in response to Sandy’s destruction New Jersey is fundamentally re-assessing how and where we occupy vulnerable areas of the coast. But I can’t. What I can say is that something has gone wrong, very wrong, with the state’s handling of Sandy recovery.

Keep Your Eye On The Ball

It Is A Beautiful Bridge

It IS A Beautiful Bridge

While the byzantine details of the George Washington Bridge lane closures capture the attention of the public and the media, the state faces issues that have the potential to negatively effect New Jersey residents for generations to come. The failure to adequately plan New Jersey’s recovery from Sandy and the inability to properly allocate the billions in recovery aid will be the real scandal. 16 months after Sandy, the state has managed to spend money on housing projects in Belleville and New Brunswick that were on the books before the storm and pay millions to outside, politically connected, contractors to help administer and distribute homeowner assistance. This includes a $10 million settlement to fired contractor HGI and $5 million more for a Christie family beach movie. Think about what that money alone could have done. There is no sign of a transparent coordinated plan that addresses the breadth of issues that the state is facing.

What New Jersey needs is a common sense approach to recovery that goes beyond the distribution of individual assistance that helps people rebuild homes damaged by Sandy’s flooding. An integrated and comprehensive plan that recognizes the threats of climate change and sea level rise in a densely populated coastal state should, at a minimum, provide the guiding principals for recovery. What it appears that we have gotten is a muddled and highly political system for distribution of Sandy money without a clear vision or discernible long-term goals.  More disturbingly, it appears that aid may have been distributed (or not)  based in part upon political considerations. There is nothing more corrupt than squandering the state’s long-term future in exchange for short-term political advantage.

It didn’t have to be this way.  The Federal Hurricane Sandy Task Force set out a series of recommendations to guide recovery efforts. The report laid out principals for rebuilding in the wake of Sandy that included requirements for addressing resiliency, vulnerability and responses to future threats posed by climate change, including sea level rise. Properly undertaking recovery would necessitate addressing infrastructure, housing, the environment and every other issue area that climate change effects. However, the Christie administration apparently knows better and is following their own path. The amount of damage done by Sandy was so enormous and the task of reshaping New Jersey is so vital that every available penny in aid needed to be spent accomplishing as much as possible. The Chrisitie administration’s failure to keep that fact as their guiding principal is a far bigger breech of the public trust, and far more damaging (albeit less entertaining), than whatever was going on at the George Washington Bridge.

Be Careful What You Wish For…

He Couldn’t Really “Do It All”

Another New Jersey governor who got himself in too deep was General George B. McClellan. When he was tapped to replace Winfield Scott at the outset of the Civil War and concerns were expressed about his ability to be both an army commander and the general-in-chief he famously stated,”I can do it all!”.  McClellan’s hubris eventually proved his undoing.   The Christie administration wanted total control over the billions in Hurricane Sandy aid coming to the state. Never mind the accounting challenge that distribution of  that much money would present, the policy challenges of spending the money appropriately or the incredibly complex issues that require innovative and thoughtful solutions-they could “do it all!” The temptation of controlling that much money along with the political power it brings and the sheer hubris that his administration needed no assistance or guidance was a toxic combination.  They got what they wanted and it has led us to where we are now. New Jersey will be paying for this failure for a long time.

Across the river in New York, an innovative program called New York Rising was created to respond to the damages caused by Sandy and the flooding of Hurricane Irene the year before. Formulating sensible and targeted spending strategies for disaster aid, implementation of intelligent and effective policies, regional planning solutions for threats that have a regional basis and most importantly, a clear and cogent approach to recovery are all integral to the operation of this program. These are all approaches that were suggested to the people at the Governor’s Office of Rebuilding and Recovery (GORR) in New Jersey. The folks at the GORR are smart and earnest, but they are also apparently not calling the shots. That responsibility rests somewhere else in the administration where the difficult work of actual disaster recovery is secondary to using Sandy recovery to burnish the governor’s political image . The logical and measured approach taken by New York was seemingly not palatable, or useful enough, for Christie’s inner circle.

What has this obsession with control of the funding and politics gotten us? A number of things-and none of them good. First and foremost the refusal to plan for and implement recovery measures on a regional basis insures that there will never be regional solutions. That puts each town in competition with one another for limited funding, creates a series of winners and losers and results in a fragmented and ultimately ineffectual approach to threats that have a regional basis. It results in funding not being spent wisely or efficiently. It insures that politics, not careful calculation, guides how and where the funding is directed. It’s deprived the state of a unified vision for recovery, resilience and reduction of vulnerability that meets the diverse conditions in a state that needs to implement solutions that are appropriate from the urbanized New York Harbor area to the rural shores of Delaware Bay. These are all colossal failures with generational consequences.

Is It Too Late?

Damaged Home In Union Beach

Damaged Home In Union Beach

There were many members of Congress who were reticent to allocate billions in aid to our state after Sandy. Fears that the money would be squandered stood in the way of what seemingly should have been an easy and non-partisan vote to help our region recover from the storm’s devastation. Sadly, it seems that we have lived down to those expectations. Because of the approach that New Jersey has taken, especially in stark contrast to the approach taken in New York, the specter  of ugly politics casts a shadow over all recovery efforts. Money given to projects unrelated to Sandy but championed by a political ally?  Sandy money contingent on support for a project put forward by a close adviser? Aid flowing to towns with mayors who supported the governor and denied to those who didn’t?  These questions have all arisen. They would be easily answered and dismissed (and probably wouldn’t have come up in the first place) if the state had taken a different tact. Instead, they all seem ominously credible.

There is still an awful lot of money that will come pouring into New Jersey. No matter where you live, you have a stake in this. Ensuring that tax dollars are appropriately and efficiently spent is important in its own right. However, making sure that recovery takes place in a manner that addresses the threats of climate change, that implements innovative solutions and takes the bold policy measures that are befitting forward thinking intelligent people has benefits that go beyond the borders of New Jersey. Getting politics out of the recovery process may be wishful thinking but providing intelligent guidance is not. Its a necessity. Perhaps now that the governor’s national political ambitions have taken a hit, attention can be directed towards visionary and effective rebuilding and political favoritism left behind.  It doesn’t look too good right now, but as I started out, I am eternally an optimist.- Ben Spinelli

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9 Comments

  1. David Peifer says:

    Gee Ben, Tell us how you really feel. Great piece that brings to mind all the other governance failures that are lurking just below the surface: no water supply master plan, no transportation trust fund, no open space funding, a State Planning Commission that hasn’t a clue, a Highlands Council that thinks there was a taking and that its business is fostering more development, the COAH mess, a regulation renewal log jam. Don’t get me started on “Christy’s Other Traffic Jams”!

  2. Ben Spinelli says:

    Dave, I was trying to take it easy on him! I didn’t want to get a 15 yard penalty for piling on. Visiting his sins on future generations (let alone what its doing to us right now) is what true corruption really means. It would be better if he was just lining his pockets and those of his cronies.

  3. Mary Venettone says:

    Amen …. Well said…..

  4. […] blog called Politics of the Environment; Discussing Environmental Public Policy and the article is Your Tax Dollars At Work or Not. I believe the author was a member of the H. Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Here is an […]

  5. How about a new state motto – “New Jersey – Doing Our Best to Make Louisiana Look Good.”

  6. Ben Spinelli says:

    I don’t know John. Seems good. But I’ve gotten the suggestion it should be in Latin- Quod Est In Loco (The Fix Is In). Tough choice!

  7. Elliott Ruga says:

    Bravo Ben! If New Jerseyans can recover from Stockholm Syndrome such revelations might have traction!

  8. Ben Spinelli says:

    Elliott,

    this is really a non-partisan issue. Having a plan, investing tax dollars wisely, preparing for the future are all conservative principals. At the same time innovative progressive approaches to recovery, resilience and reduction of vulnerability appeal to a different sector of the population. Then you just have the people who were impacted and want help. The storm certainly didn’t discriminate along political boundaries. This amounts to mishandling the single biggest issue facing NJ right now and there should be something for everyone to be angry at this administration, no matter what your political predilection.

  9. […] going on right now it seems a bit much to have to stick to New Jersey, but two days after I wrote Your Tax Dollars At Work….or Not, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held the first town hall meeting of his second term to discuss […]

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