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City’s troubled storm-recovery program gets taxpayer bail-out

Not happy: Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Coney Island) questions city officials about the newly allocated funds to pay for the behind-schedule Build it Back program.
Brooklyn Daily
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One week before the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Mayor DeBlasio admitted he won’t make his own self-imposed deadline to fix all the homes the storm destroyed by the end of the year — and that the troubled Build it Back storm-recovery program needs taxpayers to bail it out to the tune of $500 million. Officials took much of the money from the city’s capital budget — which means New Yorkers will have to cough up more tax dollars to replenish municipal coffers if the city wants to finish the projects whose funding is now being used for Build It Back, one critical councilman said during an Oct. 20 hearing.

“That money that was shifted to fund resiliency projects did not come from thin air. It came from somewhere, and it does have an impact on an agency. It does have an impact on whatever project we are looking to complete,” said Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island), chairman of Council’s Committee on Resiliency and Recovery, during an Oct. 20 hearing.

The city is getting the money from two places — $150 million in federal funds set aside right after the storm, and $350 million from the city’s capital budget, which is funded by taxpayers and would otherwise pay for storm-resiliency improvements to city hospitals, fire stations, and the Department of Environmental Protection.

But officials claim that moving the money will somehow not affect the projects that the cash was supposed to pay for and pledge to first use the federal money before dipping into the dough meant for hospitals and fire houses.

“No project is losing a single dollar, and the capital budget is not changing, only changing where the funding is coming from,” said a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. “There’s no impact. Nothing’s losing any money, nothing’s being delayed. We will use [Federal Emergency Management Administration] funding first, so it is very likely we will not end up touching this money this year, but we are recommitting funds out of an abundance of caution to ensure there are no funding gaps.”

DeBlasio previously pledged that Build It Back would complete rebuilding single-family homes by the end of the year, a promise many debunked more than six months ago. But the mayor rushed to complete work anyway, in some cases to the detriment of storm victims.

The program has been plagued with financial problems — and a comptroller audit last spring found that contractors had improperly billed the city for millions.

Hizzoner has not yet set a new deadline for completing home reconstruction, and electeds are worried this extra cash won’t even be enough to finish fixing all Sandy-damaged homes, another councilman said.

“How can you sit here with a straight face after blowing billions of dollars and ask the council for more money when you can’t even meet your own deadlines?” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R–Queens) during the hearing. “What guarantee do I have as a steward of the taxpayers’ money that the mayor will not come back to the Council at some point next year and say, ‘We need another half a billion dollars. Thanks for the money you gave us last year, but we blew through all the money and we need more money.’ ”

But officials couldn’t offer any concrete assurance, and are asking people just to take a leap of faith.

“I think you’re just going to have to trust us,” said John Grathwol, deputy director for the Office of Management and Budget.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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