By Maryann Spoto, Star Ledger
BELMAR —When Krista Sperber was ushered out of an office last year for insisting on an accounting of how her Hurricane Sandy rebuilding money was allocated, the Belmar resident said she was livid over not getting information she contends she was entitled to have.
Now that a new law is in place to hold contractors and state officials more accountable in the post-Sandy rebuilding process, Sperber said thousands of other Sandy victims will now be able to get the type of information she was denied.
"There's no way I should have been thrown out of the RREM office because I wanted to know how they got their numbers," said Sperber, referring to the much-criticized state-run Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation Program. "That should not be a secret to anyone."
Sperber's is one of the many complaints of Sandy victims that caught the attention of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who visited Belmar on Wednesday to tout the new law that he said would make the rebuilding process more transparent for residents.
A couple of times Sweeney took a swipe at Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed an earlier version of the bill then known as the Sandy Bill of Rights, and at Republicans in the state Legislature who voted for the bill of rights but then voted against an override of Christie's veto.
"Finally we got a situation where families can get answers," That's the most important piece here, is to be able to find out where you stand and when you can expect help."
Under the new law, which Sweeney sponsored and Christie signed last week, the Department of Community Affairs is required to give detailed timelines to Sandy victims who have applied for financial assistance under the state's recovery programs. Those timelines must explain when applicants can expect to see their aid money arrive. It also requires the Department of Community Affairs to establish quarterly goals for distributing aid and to post the information online in plain language.
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, said the new law codifies what the department has already been doing with the money, which comes from federal Community Development Block Grant funding.
She said the RREM Program, for example, has individually contacted every one of the approximately 8,300 Sandy-affected homeowners actively participating in the program about their grants, the rebuilding of their homes and where they stand in the process.
"We're confident homeowners in the RREM Program know where they are in the process and have resources readily available should they have questions about their individual situation," she said. "We're also confident that we are providing New Jersey residents with up-to-date information about CDBG Disaster Recovery funding at work. We look forward to continuing to provide people rebuilding from the storm with the information they need to move forward with their recovery from the storm."
Joe Mangino has been out of his home in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township since Thanksgiving last year waiting for it to be elevated.
Mangino, co-founder of the Sandy victims advocacy group New Jersey Organizing Project, said the law's provisions would have enabled him and his family to make more informed decisions about where to live while they were out of their home. He said they twice did not take advantage of rental assistance programs because they believed their project manager's claims that they would be back home soon. That was 245 days ago, he said.
Mangino, who followed Christie to an agricultural summit in Iowa in March to complain about the RREM program, said it "has been plagued by delays, confusion and disorganization" and he praised the new law.
"It's a major step forward. I know thousands of families are going to benefit from this and not have to go through the RREM quagmire that I endured," he said.
Adam Gordon, staff attorney for the housing advocacy group Fair Share Housing, said only 10 percent of all the residents who are in the RREM Program are back in their homes.
"It makes sure that no matter what program you're in, no matter where you stand in the process you have an opportunity to actually know where you stand (and) what you need to do to rebuild," Gordon said.
"In some ways, it's crazy we have to pass legislation in order to have that," he added.
MaryAnn Spoto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaryAnnSpoto. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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