Senate Environment panel clears Sandy-related bills

TRENTON – Lawmakers dived into some post-Sandy recovery bills Thursday.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee cleared four bills and a resolution, most of which are directly related to the destruction from Superstorm Sandy that hit New Jersey just over a year ago.

These bills, Chair Sen. Bob Smith said, also came out of testimony lawmakers heard during four hearings held around the state from homeowners who experienced numerous problems with insurance, agencies and rebuilding.

The bills dealt with contractors who elevate homes above flood levels, towns that want to form electric distribution systems, and establishing protections for homeowners who need mold removed.

S3005/A2316 – This bill would authorize three or more municipalities that operate electric distribution systems to establish a municipal shared services energy authority.  Once established, the bill would authorize rural electric cooperatives to become a member of the authority.

It passed the Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support.  The committee OK’d it 3-2 on party lines.

Republican Sens. Jennifer Beck and Christopher Bateman opposed it, with Bateman suggesting it go through the Budget Committee, partially in light of opposition from the Division of Rate Counsel.

They said that the bill as written has no true oversight, with participants exempted from Board of Public Utilities oversight.

“There is no oversight at all,’’ Beck said. “They can’t be exempt.’’

S2976 – This would mandate standards for contractors who raise homes above flood-elevation levels.

This work in New Jersey has not previously been done on a scale comparable to what will be seen through the next several years.  The bill passed unanimously.

Contractors must carry insurance sufficient to protect against unforeseen peril, and the elevation work must be conducted with equipment capable of lifting homes without frequent accidents or mishaps.

They must have $1 million minimum insurance, plus $500,000 more for contents, and use a unified jacking system that lifts structures in a synchronized manner.

The “classic example’’ of problems is the house being raised in the Atlantic Highlands and which collided with an adjacent structure.  Smith said the reports they heard said the wrong equipment was being used by operators who were not trained properly.

This bill had widespread support from builders, environmentalists, and state agencies.

“We’ve seen enough dropped houses,’’ said John Miller of the N.J. Association of Floodplain Management.

But, Smith said, “It’s not all kumbaya,’’ because the administration, via the Attorney General’s office, expressed concerns of legal ramifications that it would seek to have addressed.

SCR125 – This supports congressional efforts to exempt from penalties homeowners who have to take hardship distributions from 401(k) plans.

Under current law, the amount of any hardship distribution is subject to an additional 10 percent tax as an early withdrawal, and the individual is prohibited from making salary contributions to the plan for a six-month period following the distribution.  

As a result, those who have already suffered significant losses through no fault of their own face an additional financial setback for merely accessing their own retirement savings.

“We heard people come to our hearing and say … that they were being punished,’’ Smith said. They said at hearings they had no choice but to withdraw money and put it toward recovery, Smith said.

S2632 –  This bill, released unanimously, would expand the types of projects eligible for special assessments imposed by a town in exchange for property owners receiving help with initial financing of conservation projects.

This bill, a voluntary program, concerns the financing of water conservation, storm shelter construction, and flood and hurricane resistance projects, and would change the “clean energy special assessment” into the “clean energy and storm resistance special assessment.” 

Currently, a municipality may finance the purchase and installation of renewable energy systems made by property owners. 

Then, the municipality may impose a special assessment on those properties when the owner has requested the assessment in exchange for receiving assistance with the initial financing. 

However, the only types of projects eligible for this treatment are the installation of renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements. 

Under the bill, water conservation projects, flood resistant construction projects, hurricane resistant construction projects, residential storm shelter projects, and safe room projects would also be eligible for a “clean energy and storm resistance special assessment.”

“If you’re going to rely on the federal money, you have to dance to the piper’s turne,’’ Smith said. A bill like this, he said, gives New Jersey some skin in the game and a dedicated approach to finding money.

S2081 – This requires the Department of Community Affairs to establish ways to deal with mold hazards in residential buildings, and certification programs for mold inspectors and mold hazard abatement workers. It passed unanimously.

Sponsor Sen. Robert Singer, (R-30), Lakewood, has heard complaints from consumers about mold being treated improperly.

Support came from the League of Municipalities, the N.J. Association of Realtors, N.J. School Boards, and others.

The bill voted on today is the Assembly version, deleting the provision requiring adoption of standards and instead requiring procedures for inspection and abatement that follow industry standards and standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Consumers could continue to hire uncertified people until this bill’s provisions regarding certification come to fruition.

But the Sierra Club said it would prefer the state adopt its own procedures, and told the committee there just aren’t enough inspectors, which contributes to delays.

 

Senate Environment panel clears Sandy-related bills