SENATE COMMUNITY AND URBAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

 

STATEMENT TO

 

SENATE, No. 1306

 

with committee amendments

 

STATE OF NEW JERSEY

 

DATED:  MARCH 17, 2014

 

      The Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee reports favorably and with committee amendments Senate Bill No. 1306.

      As amended by the committee, this bill would establish the “Superstorm Sandy Bill of Rights.”  This tragic storm inflicted immense damage to this State, and has driven more than a quarter-million State residents to seek governmental assistance. 

      Since the recovery effort began, too many victimized individuals, businesses, and communities have experienced unreasonable suffering, inconveniences, and unfair treatment in their efforts to obtain governmental assistance.  These problems have arisen in the form of unclear application and appeals processes, difficulties in obtaining the status of applications, rejections without any reasoning offered, waiting lists provided without any clear order, disparities in funding offered for African-American and Latino applicants, insufficient and often inaccurate program information, particularly in Spanish, State funding offered to certain communities in amounts disproportionate to the amount of damage endured, insufficient resettlement funding offered to low and moderate income individuals, and an overall lack of transparency and refusals to respond to OPRA requests. 

      This bill would establish standards for the treatment of individuals, businesses, and local units that have been victimized by this tragedy.  This bill would require that, to the greatest extent permitted under federal law, each individual, business, and local unit that has been victimized by this tragedy, shall have rights to transparent and fair access to all recovery funding.  This access would be based on consistent and transparent standards that are focused on the recovery efforts of those who are most impacted and with the greatest need. 

      To the greatest extent permissible under federal law, this bill, as amended, would specifically require:

(1)       a clear explanation of application requirements, including a description of applicant rights to file appeals, a list of required documents, and a description of the process necessary to correct any application deficiency;

(2)       certain rights to appeal unfavorable decisions, and to obtain a decision on any appeal within 50 days;

(3)       rights to knowledge of where an application stands, including the availability of a system to track the status of each application that is searchable to the applicant through the assistance of trained counselors, over the telephone, and through the Internet, without displaying personal information to the public.  At least one office shall exist for every 5,000 applicants for the purpose of receiving application submissions, addressing applicant questions, and facilitating meetings with counselors.  Office locations and the locations of hearings held to gain public input shall be accessible by public transportation to the greatest extent possible;

(4)       the right to know why a rejection, or other adverse determination, has occurred, including the right to a full list of reasons for the adverse determination at the time it is given to the applicant;

(5)       the right to knowledge of waiting list placement, including an explanation of placement rationale, an estimated wait time, and an estimate of the round of funding the applicant is in.  Changes to the waiting list shall be updated weekly on the State’s Internet website;

(6)       the right to fair access regardless of race or ethnicity.  This right includes mandatory monthly reporting requirements to document accepted, rejected, waitlisted, and withdrawn applications, by race and ethnicity, and by urban, suburban, or rural location, as well as reporting requirements to document Spanish language accessibility.  The State Auditor would annually audit the monthly reports;

(7)       the right to access program information in languages other than English.  Recovery and rebuilding program funding would be used for outreach efforts to the Spanish speaking community.  If the State’s outreach efforts are not fully implemented prior to early-round distributions, then the Spanish speaking community would be prioritized in later-round distributions;

(8)       the right for local units, as well as individuals and businesses, to obtain benefits based on the level of damage, the extent of need among those of modest income, and the extent of future severe weather risk;

(9)       the right to apply for benefits through more than one program and through insurance.  If an applicant is partially compensated through one recovery and rebuilding program, or through insurance, the applicant shall not be prohibited from seeking benefits from another recovery and rebuilding program;

(10)     the right for victims with modest income to obtain a fair portion of benefits.  No less than 60 percent of funding awarded through the Superstorm Sandy Homeowner Resettlement Program shall be allocated to persons of low or moderate income.  Funding for a local unit to address infrastructure that has been damaged by a severe weather event shall only be distributed if the local unit commits to addressing the needs of both renters and homeowners.  The State shall establish clear standards for assisting residents of manufactured and mobile homes;

(11)     rights to knowledge of how contracting decisions and other funding decisions are made.  Information on the recipients of contracts for the expenditure of recovery and rebuilding program funds shall be maintained on the State’s Internet website, and updated on a weekly basis.  Features of the recovery and rebuilding process, and guidelines to control project eligibility, shall include (a) access to an accelerated appeals process for applicants who were denied benefits prior to the availability of this basic information, (b) the availability of information on how all recovery and rebuilding program funding has been spent, and all plans for future expenditures, (c) the State shall change the application and appeals process only if there is a substantial need, and shall give applicants 60 days’ notice before any altered requirements take effect, (d) applicants shall not be excluded for no other reason than having a post office box address, (e) the State shall set aside Superstorm Sandy benefits for applicants who did not receive benefits from a prior distribution due to the lack of process clarity, (f) the right to select the contractor for work on one’s own property, (g) the right not to be precluded from a benefit only because an applicant has started repair work prior to receipt of the benefit, (h) an applicant with an uninhabitable primary residence shall receive expedited application review, (i) clear guidelines to assist local contractors to obtain relief work; and

(12)     the right to be treated with dignity and respect. 

The bill would also impose similar standards for any future disasters and unspent recovery funding from prior disasters. 

      A public official, officer, employee, or custodian who knowingly and willfully violates provisions of this bill, and unreasonably impedes access to program benefits as a result, could be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 to $5,000.  An applicant who is subject to an unfavorable decision may challenge the decision by filing an action in Superior Court.

 

COMMITTEE AMENDMENTS

      The committee amended section 3 of the bill to:

·       define the term “benefit,” as used throughout the bill;

·       require that the State’s Internet website contain a description of the process necessary to correct application deficiencies;

·       require that at least one office exists for every 5,000 applicants for the purpose of receiving application submissions, addressing applicant questions, and facilitating meetings with counselors, and to require that both office locations and the locations of hearings held to gain public input shall be accessible by public transportation to the greatest extent possible;

·       require that wait-listed applicants are provided with an estimated wait time, and an estimate of the round of funding they will be in;

·       provide that required monthly reporting on applicant demographic statistics include the urban, suburban, or rural location of the applicant’s home municipality, and include an account of measures taken to improve program access for the Spanish speaking community;

·       require that program funding is used for outreach efforts to the Spanish speaking community, and that if the State’s outreach efforts are not fully implemented prior to early-round distributions, then the Spanish speaking community shall be prioritized in later-round distributions;

·       require that a local unit that does not receive benefits from a early round program distribution in a fair proportion shall receive priority in the receipt of benefits from a future distribution to compensate for the difference;

·       require the State to establish clear standards for assisting residents of manufactured and mobile homes;

·       make funding distributions to local units for infrastructure needs contingent on the local unit’s commitment to addressing the needs of both renters and homeowners;

·       require that the features of the recovery and rebuilding process and the guidelines to control project eligibility shall include (a) access to an accelerated appeals process for applicants who were denied benefits prior to the availability of this basic information, (b) the availability of information on how all recovery and rebuilding program funding has been spent, and all plans for future expenditures, (c) the State shall change the application and appeals process only if there is a substantial need, and shall give applicants 60 days’ notice before any altered requirements take effect, (d) applicants shall not be excluded for no other reason than having a post office box address, (e) the State shall set aside Superstorm Sandy benefits for applicants who did not receive benefits from a prior distribution due to the lack of process clarity, (f) the right to select the contractor for work on one’s own property, (g) the right not to be precluded from a benefit only because an applicant has started repair work prior to receipt of the benefit, (h) an applicant with an uninhabitable primary residence shall receive expedited application review, (i) clear guidelines to assist local contractors to obtain relief work; and

·       correct several technical errors, and clarify various provisions to better reflect legislative intent.