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As Congress Drags Feet on Flood Aid, Bergen Lawmakers Step Up to Help Home & Business Owners Recover

As a number of Bergen County towns continue to deal with the aftermath of record flooding from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, Senator Bob Gordon and Assemblywomen Connie Wagner and Joan Voss are proposing several measures to help beleaguered residents recover and to mitigate future flooding problems.

“”There is only so much flooding any one community can handle. It’s time to look at the bigger picture and figure out how we can address this problem moving forward,” said Wagner (D-Bergen). “These measures will help home and business owners get back on their feet in the aftermath of the record flooding we’ve seen and also help minimize any havoc that could be wreaked by future storms.”

“We need a comprehensive approach that helps residents deal with the recovery efforts in the short term and also employs solutions to help combat future flooding in the long-term. Cumulatively, I think these efforts will do just that,” said Voss (D-Bergen). “This is no time to play games with people’s lives. We need to employ creative ways for the state to assist our residents.”

“The flood waters may be gone, but the damage from Irene has not dissipated. There are thousands of people who need help recovering from the storm and are having trouble finding it. There are several steps we can take to help alleviate some of their pain, including providing the necessary funds to begin rebuilding homes and communities,” said Gordon (D-Bergen).

The first proposal put forth by the lawmakers mirrors a similar “Green Acres” measure instituted by various local governments wherein municipalities would be allowed to establish municipal open space trust funds specifically for the purchase of flood-prone properties. In order to establish such a fund, local governing bodies would have to seek voter approval for an annual levy at a rate deemed appropriate.

Under current law, municipalities are authorized to establish “Municipal Open Space, Recreation, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Funds.” This bill would amend the name of these municipal open space trust funds to be “Municipal Open Space, Recreation, Floodplain Protection, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Funds.”

In doing so, the bill would expand this authorization to specifically include “Blue Acres projects,” which are any projects acquired for recreation or conservation purposes on land that has been damaged by, or may be prone to incurring damage caused by, storms or storm-related flooding, or that may buffer or protect other lands from such damage. The funds would be allowed to be used for the demolition of structures or the removal of debris from such properties and the restoration of those lands to a natural state or to a state useful for recreation and conservation purposes.

“This will help empower residents to determine how they want to deal with future flooding problems,” added Voss. “If it’s necessary for towns to buy up properties that consistently flood during heavy rains, residents will have the choice of creating a funding mechanism to do just that.”

Gordon officially introduced the measure in the Senate on Thursday. Voss and Wagner are sponsoring the measure in the Assembly and intend to introduce it the next time the Assembly is in session.

The Bergen lawmakers also announced plans to introduce legislation to exempt sales and use tax for repair-related items for flood victims whose homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irene and/or Tropical Storm Lee. Similar to legislation enacted in the wake of Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, this bill would limit the sales and use tax exemptions to the specific counties enumerated in the President’s disaster declaration for New Jersey.

Gordon intends to introduce the Senate version of the bill on Monday. Wagner and Voss will sponsor the measure in the Assembly.

“Particularly at a time when Congress is playing political games with federal aid, this would help struggling home and business owners get back on their feet,” said Wagner. “There is a precedent for this type of assistance in the aftermath of extreme storms. Therefore, I hope the Governor and our legislative colleagues will join us in supporting this measure.”

The lawmakers are also working to identify a funding source to allocate roughly $10 million to modernize the bridge over the Saddle River at Saddle River Rd and Marsellus Place in Garfield. Local officials have pointed out that the main reason Garfield, Lodi and surrounding towns become flooded is due to the concrete impediments and iron girders under the bridge which collect debris during heavy rainfalls and form a natural dam that causes water to overflow and flood the surrounding areas.

New technologies available can support the bridge without the concrete walls, which local officials believe would help alleviate roughly 80 percent of the flooding that occurs. Gordon, Voss and Wagner hope to introduce legislation to support this long-term solution as soon as an available funding source is identified.

They also hope to explore the possibility of using some of the $26 million that the administration recently found in “buried accounts” to offset local expenses not covered by FEMA in order to help municipalities avoid any hefty local tax increases to cover cleanup expenses. According to the town of Saddle Brook, FEMA will not cover roughly $300,000 in recovery expenses, which may force the town to raise taxes

“It is great that the state has found money seemingly under a couch somewhere because those funds are badly needed,” said Gordon. “I understand the rationale to use these funds to reduce debt, but I believe a portion of the newly found $26 million should be used to aid those who lost so much because of Irene. We can also provide resources for people seeking to leave their flood prone neighborhood by allowing towns to establish a ‘Blue Acres’ program.”

Cumulatively, the lawmakers hope these proposals will provide both short and long term fixes to the flooding problems that have plagued Bergen County and other parts of the state.