NJ lawmakers get firsthand look at storm damage

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Entertainment,Travel

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers got a firsthand look Thursday at storm-wrecked coastal towns from Seaside Heights to Mantoloking that remain uninhabitable a month after Superstorm Sandy, as they heard from local officials about what it will take for the most severely damaged towns to recover.

The Assembly lawmakers asked to see the damage up close as they set to work on rebuilding and storm protection issues.

Gov. Chris Christie has requested $36.8 billion in federal storm aid for New Jersey. But mayors said they will face other, sometimes daunting costs.

They'll be left to shoulder whatever portion of cleanup costs that the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn't reimburse. As of now, one said overtime costs are running 10 times above normal. They'll also have to make up for lost property tax revenue from homes that have been destroyed or damaged and businesses that won't reopen, perhaps by raising taxes for those who remain. And, if next summer's tourism season is abbreviated or slowed, they'll also lose the revenue that comes from vacationers. The state's budget will also be impacted by the lost revenue.

"We face significant fiscal challenges," said Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, who represents parts of Monmouth County. For example, she said, the state will now be asked to assist shore towns that had been revenue producers for New Jersey.

"I don't know where the money's going to come from," Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Vincent Barnella told the lawmakers. He said it will cost $4 million to replace the boardwalk decking and supports taken out by the storm, a job he'd like to see completed by Memorial Day. "But that's a big price tag for 5,000 people."

He said the municipal building sustained $9.3 million in damage, three-quarters of his town's total yearly operating budget.

What the Assembly members saw shocked some — houses ripped off their foundations and knocked sideways, or into one another, boats strewn on lawns and a temporary sand road where Route 35 used to be. Speaker Sheila Oliver was brought to tears by the decimated amusement pier on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.

The lawmakers, who spent the day touring the shore by bus, heard a chorus of local officials say their municipal budgets have been shot by the storm.

Lavallette Mayor Walter La Cicero said his town needs more time to repay $4 million it's been forced to borrow for emergency road repairs and to replace police headquarters, which was destroyed.

The mayor told Assembly Budget Chairman Vincent Prieto that five years isn't enough time to pay back the money; he's hoping for legislation to extend the repayment period to 20 years.

For Seaside Heights, the property tax hit to surviving residences could be significant. Mayor Bill Akers said three-quarters of the town's budget comes from tourism. The damage estimate for the boardwalk's amusement pier is $45 million; some missing boards have already been replaced.

In heavily damaged Ortley Beach, where streets are piled high with discarded mattresses, furniture, appliances, insulation and debris, roads have been swept of sand and sink holes filled in.

"It's one month later and let me tell you it looks a million times better," said Toms River police Chief Michael Mastronardy, as he stood outside the demolished Surf Club.

Some officials came to the lawmakers with ideas for helping raise money for their towns.

One suggested a 2 percent fee added to all alcoholic beverages sold in the town.

"No one orders a Dewers and soda and asks, 'How much is it?' first," he said. "No one notices."

Another suggested a tax on parking.

A third asked that the state certify mold inspectors just like it certifies termite inspectors, so homeowners who remediate for mold would have some protection.

Oliver said the state's response would depend in part on how much money the federal government commits to the recovery. But she said the Legislature may consider tax credits to homeowners facing certain repairs, like hooking up to newly installed gas lines.

The Assembly plans to hold hearings next week on insurance claims, following complaints that some insurers have been slow to respond to storm claims.

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