By Arthur H. Gunther III
Billions are sought for Hurricane Sandy reconstruction by the governors of New York and New Jersey and the mayor of New York City. The full dollars may not come given the federal budget deficit, the “fiscal cliff” stalemate and traditional congressional reluctance to assist the Northeast, but whatever funds do arrive, the certainty is that the greedy already see cash in their big eyes.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York State needs $42 billion, Gotham’s mayor wants $15 billion and Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thinks $37 billion will do. How these astounding figures are arrived at is anyone’s guess, though I suppose aides add up destroyed infrastructure, private housing, lost wages, etc., so that the politicians have “ballpark” figures to lobby the president, Congress and the federal Office of Management and Budget. Let’s hope some serious bean counters step in to reassess the billions requested. In fact, add more common sense and include about a million dollars for an independent “clerk of the works” and staff who can challenge every predicted expense.
Anyone with a flicker of humanity knows people who lost their homes and possessions, who even today are without the comfort of ordinary routine, must be assisted, and sooner rather than later. And there are roads, tunnels, train equipment, etc., that must be repaired for the general good. All very expensive work, though jobs will be created, and that will help the struggling economy.
What will not help the nation’s finances is to go whole hog on Hurricane Sandy cleanup and restoration without checking the figures in the beginning, during the rebuilding and after. Some concerns:
• Will the contracts for repair/replacement be reasonable, and will the opportunity to grossly inflate amounts be checked?
• Who will check the credentials of the potential contractors, their reliability? How many will have political connections?
• Will the costs of materials be exorbitant?
• Should some of the shoreline homes not be rebuilt because they could again lie in harm’s way in this time of ever-worse “100-year” storms that come every few seasons? Can some of the residents be relocated inland?
• Similarly, should all boardwalk areas be restored if they will be damaged in future storms? Will new construction be such that it can withstand surges?
• Will a dollar limit be placed on assistance for wealthy residents who lost expensive shore homes? The ordinary taxpayer should not be helping the rich. Basic home reconstruction, yes, but additional expense for big-bucks homes should come from the homeowner.
• Will priority be given to such devastated areas as the Rockaways in New York, where bungalows were destroyed? These people need assistance first.
• Will infrastructure be replaced with better design and material, or will the same-old be rebuilt and again damaged in new storms?
• Will there be a timetable for the money spent and to assure well-paced reconstruction?
• Finally, will government just dole out billions and then walk away, leaving the details and ultimate cost overruns to the bureaucracy, to the greedy who see this as big opportunity?
An ombudsman is required, a “National Storm Rebuilding Overseer,” a clerk of the works who can filter all costs and make sure only honest contractors are hired, those who care and who will not gouge the taxpayer. If that clerk of the works and team are not appointed, if there is no gatekeeper, the national deficit will again balloon in continued lack of accountability.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.