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Senate President Steve Sweeney addresses the full Senate for the first time in the 216th Legislature.

Senate President Steve Sweeney continued his “Sandy Bill of Rights” tour today with a stop in Linden. The tour is intended to bring attention to the needs of victims of Superstorm Sandy nearly 16 months after the storm hit New Jersey.

The Senate President stopped at the 7th WardRecreationCenter, where he was joined by Senator Nick Scutari, Assemblyman Jerry Green, Assemblywoman Linda Stender, local officials, advocates and victims of the storm.  The center served as a community shelter after Sandy. The Tremley Point area around the center was especially hard hit, with dozens of homes lost. More than $900 million in damages occurred in Linden as a result of Sandy.

“The locations are different, but the message we are getting from residents is always the same: not nearly enough is being done to help recover from the storm,” said Sweeney.  “Tremley Point and the surrounding area is like so many places that were devastated by Sandy. The rebuilding process is taking too long because it has been plagued by missteps, secrecy and inept administration.  People need aid and they need answers.”

Tremley Point lost dozens of homes from the storm, with many taking on as much as four feet of water. Several homes sustained damage from 500 pound railroad ties that were uprooted by surging waters.  The surge created an oil spill in the RoseHillCemetery, covering tombstones, and seeping into the properties of neighboring homes.

The Senate President also discussed his plan of action that calls for more assistance to homeowners and renters during the second phase of Sandy recovering funding.  The plan was submitted to the Department of Community Affairs yesterday.  It presents a three pronged approach that focuses on treating renters and owners fairly, distributing resources equitably and ensuring transparency through every step of the process. It utilizes Community Resource Recovery Centers to help with disbursement of aid and to act as resource guides for victims of the storm.

“Community Resource Recovery Centers can save time, money and energy in the recovery process,” said Staci Berger, President and CEO of the Housing & Community Development Network of NJ.  “We wasted $50 million on HGI for a project that should have cost only a fraction of that. The money saved could have gone towards getting people back in their homes.  This plan does right by the people of New Jersey, something that should have been the administration’s goal all along.”

Last month, Senate President Sweeney introduced legislation that would establish a “Sandy Bill of Rights.” The 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 your relief application stands and what additional information is needed; the right to know why your application was rejected or why you were placed on a waiting list and the right to appeal a denial of funding.

Recent media accounts and advocacy groups have reported various problems in the Sandy aid process.  For example, some families were being told they would lose their aid for failure to provide certain documents, while others were given no such ultimatum.  In other instances, numbers show that funding has been denied at higher rates for African American and Latino residents despite being equally hard hit by the storm.  Only 4% of available funding has been distributed.

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, and state officials have said little about how they will proceed with this critical task.

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