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SEA BRIGHT DROPS ‘UNWORKABLE’ FEMA FIX

Flip-flops over coverage of homeowner repair costs prompted town officials to withdraw from a pilot program, they said. (Click to enlarge)

By WIL FULTON

Frustrated by bureaucratic waffling, Sea Bright officials pulled the borough out of a federal program aimed at quickly getting residents back into their Hurricane Sandy-damaged homes Tuesday night.

Town officials cited indecision and flip-flops over what would be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s Sheltering and Temporary Electric and Power, or STEP, program as the main the reasons for the withdrawal.

“The goal was to get the residents home,” said Mayor Dina Long. “We thought the STEP program would be very helpful in achieving that goal, but ultimately it turned out to be unworkable.”

STEP, introduced to New Jersey by Governor Chris Christie in early December, is a pilot program that purports to provide battered homes with temporary heating, hot water, suitable flooring and electricity in order to get displaced residents back into their own houses as soon as possible. FEMA provided 75 percent of the $10,000 worth of fixes per eligible home, and 130 Sea Bright residents applied to take part in the program, starting six weeks ago, town officials said.

But “because STEP was a pilot program, there were no set guidelines, and the town wasn’t able to get clear direction on what supplies and labor would be eligible for reimbursement, as well as which types if households would be eligible for reimbursement,” Long told redbankgreen. “That, along with an inability to receive written guidance and multiple changes in key personnel, has made this a frustrating effort for us over the last two months.”

She also said that in multiple cases, houses that were at first deemed eligible were subsequently denied acceptance into the program due to shifting guidelines.

“In the end, we had to disqualify more people than we qualified,” she said.

Addressing the public at the meeting, Nancy Sherman, who headed the project for Sea Bright, cited numerous frustrations with the program’s implementation.

“To say that the guidance changed weekly is an understatement,” Sherman said, “Nothing was really forthcoming. For example, renters were originally going to be able to be covered; that has gone back and forth. ‘Substantial damage’ was originally included; on Friday we were informed that would not be covered.”

She said she sat down with Long and the council to explore alternatives, a task made riskier “because FEMA also informed us that we would be accountable for any demo [demolition] work done as a result of the STEP program, and would not be reimbursing the program if we pulled out.”

The decided alternative, according to Long, is be to set aside a portion of funds from a Special Emergency Note, issued as part of the Community Disaster Loan, to give the 130 residents who signed up for the STEP program up to $5,000 each to use for home reconstruction.

Sherman and Long said that the although the new fund would provide the residents who signed up with less cash, the value could be greater in the long run because residents would be able to invest the money in a permanent solution to their heating, hot water, electrical and flooring problems, as well as being able to do their shopping wherever they want to, on their terms.

“What we did was create a program that will at least try to make it right for those 130 people, who were originally approved for the STEP program,” Long said. “This will allow them to make their repairs and be reimbursed locally. STEP provided temporary solutions, and it wasn’t cost-effective, but we went with it because we thought it would bring people back home – and they still need help getting home, so at least this gives them something.”

The reaction from the audience at the meeting, held in the borough community center, was highly positive with one woman congratulating the mayor and council, saying their solution was “much better” and “the right thing to do.”

“You know that old saying, you have know when to fold them and when to to hold them?” Long said. “We decided to fold, and this is our way of trying to make it right.”

Also featured during the course of the meeting: the swearing-in of new Fire Chief Dave Estelle, who took his oath of office before a contingent of fellow volunteer firefighters and family.

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