Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did a better job with Hurricane Sandy recovery than the state government, GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino said today — despite the frequent and strong criticism some city officials and residents have had for Mr. Bloomberg’s Build it Back program.
“I would say Mayor Bloomberg did a good job. I think, overall, people think the city probably did a better job than the state,” Mr. Astorino told the Observer after a press conference slamming Gov. Andrew Cuomo for spending federal relief dollars on Sandy-related tourism advertisements. “But it’s just it’s been a bureaucratic nightmare for too many people who are still out of their homes, two years later, and there’s no reason for that whatsoever — so the governor taking a victory lap for purely political reasons is unseemly, when you’ve got people who are still not in their homes.”
He was referring to the $30 million in federal relief funding Gov. Andrew Cuomo got approval to spend on advertisements promoting tourism to the state post-storm, which Mr. Astorino described as “thinly disguised political spots.”
“New York State invested in a series of tourism ads to drive vacation dollars to those counties, many of which featured small businesses in the impacted areas. Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, New York is building back better than ever. I guess Rob Astorino’s strategy would have been to tell those counties to drop dead,” a Cuomo campaign spokesman, Matt Wing, said.
While Mr. Astorino has long been knocking Mr. Cuomo over Sandy, his relative praise for former Mr. Bloomberg might come as something of a surprise — Mr. Bloomberg’s Build it Back housing recovery program has been roundly derided.
When Mr. Bloomberg, whose administration created the program, left office over a year after the storm, construction had not been started on a single home through Build it Back, and not a single homeowner had received reimbursement checks for repair work.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to streamline the program — and the number of construction starts has climbed to 800, and the number of reimbursement checks to 1,090 two years after the storm — but he, too, has been criticized for not acting quickly enough. About half of the program’s 14,000 active applicants have now been made an offer, compared to almost none when Mr. Bloomberg left office.
But compare that with the state’s housing recovery program in Long Island, called New York Rising: that program has awarded checks for repairs or reimbursements to 9,554 homeowners, out of 16,667 applicants. And it doesn’t include hundreds of millions more spent by the state to buy out homes through another program.
New York City’s slower pace has led to plenty of criticism of Build it Back, particularly from Mr. Astorino’s fellow Republicans on storm-ravaged Staten Island.
“I’m somewhat reticent here to speak because for 18 months, Staten Islanders and those folks impacted by the storm have been inundated with words. Much like the waves inundated them, they’ve heard from various levels of government lots of words and haven’t seen a whole lot of action. And I, frankly, don’t want to add to that,” Staten Island Republican Borough President James Oddo said of Build it Back in April. “First I want to thank Mayor de Blasio and his team for trying to fix the mistakes of the past, to amend these programs, to change these programs, to improve these program, to give the folks the action they so desperately need.”
He went on to criticize Mr. Bloomberg’s administration for failing to allow more local control in each borough. Local control is something Mr. Astorino said today was key for storm recovery — and which he said had worked in Westchester.
“We actually put every agency in one location, in a public place, for the public to go to get information,” Mr. Astorino said, as opposed to allowing for “conflicting answers, duplication, and then you change case workers, as is the case right now, and you’ve got to start all over again.”
He added: “That’s still all over the map right now with the state — I’ve talked to a lot of people in Long Island, and some people in New York City, and they’re just absolutely at their wits end.”
Mr. Astorino’s words about a disorganized state response and changing case workers could easily have been criticisms of Build it Back, endlessly documented in local newspapers and in a sprawling New York Times investigation laying the blame on city government.
Other Republicans — Councilmen Vincent Ignizio and Steven Matteo and Congressman Michael Grimm — were so frustrated with the long road of Build it Back they didn’t even bother to attend the April press conference where Mr. Oddo voiced his displeasure. After, Mr. Ignizio and Mr. Matteo said they wanted action and not photo-opps; Mr. Grimm, meanwhile, has been a frequent and strident critic of Build it Back.
Those same Republican officials have not been similarly critical of Mr. Cuomo or the state government, which is responsible for just one housing-related storm recovery endeavor in New York City — a popular buyout program within specific areas of Staten Island for which Mr. Cuomo has received praise.
The Staten Island buyout program received 495 applications; it has made offers to 393 homeowners for a total of $172 million, and has closed on 269 homes for $126.5 million. In addition, the state plans to spend $80 million funding a city-run home acquisition program as part of Build it Back.
Besides streamlining recovery procedures, Mr. Astorino offered few other suggestions for changes to the state’s Sandy recovery efforts, but said Mr. Cuomo should “return the $37.5 million that he swiped from the Hurricane Sandy relief funds for his own television commercials.”
Asked what he thought of the city’s Build it Back program, Mr. Astorino shifted to discussing plans for a transfer station in a flood zone on the Upper East Side.
“One thing I question heavily is why they would want to build the transfer station, the waste transfer station, when they know now after Sandy that it’s five feet below sea level and in a flood plane,” he said.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of reimbursement checks sent by the city, 1,090.