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Commentary for Feb. 21-28

Written by The Two River Times. Posted in Letters & Commentary

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Published on February 21, 2014 with No Comments

Monmouth Poll: Sandy Aid Applicants Yet to Feel ‘reNEWed’

By Monmouth University Polling Institute

Applicants for New Jersey’s federally funded Super Storm Sandy assistance program, reNew Jersey Stronger, are generally dissatisfied with the pace of the state’s recovery efforts.

A Monmouth University Poll tracking survey of hard hit Sandy victims finds that those who have applied for state assistance are particularly unhappy with their ability to get information about where they stand in the process.

Among hard hit Garden State residents who have applied for reNew Jersey Stronger assistance, just 36 percent are satisfied with the state’s recovery effort so far while 64 percent are dissatisfied. Among those who say they are still displaced from their homes, just 21 percent are satisfied. This compares to just under half of those who have been able to move back into their homes (49 percent) or were displaced for less than a month (47 percent) who say they are satisfied with New Jersey’s efforts.

Nearly 3-in-4 (74 percent) state aid applicants feel that people like them have largely been forgotten in the recovery effort. Just 26 percent say that New Jersey’s efforts are focused on helping people like them. Those still displaced from their homes (84 percent) are the most likely to feel they have been forgotten.

Applicants for reNew Jersey Stronger aid are evenly divided over how good a job the state has done in helping them recovery from Sandy – half (49 percent) say that the state has been at least somewhat helpful and half (50 percent) say it has not really been helpful. Only 15 percent say the state has been “very” helpful, while nearly twice as many (27 percent) say it has not been helpful at all. Residents who were still displaced from their homes at the time they were surveyed (38 percent) are less likely than applicants who had returned to their homes (57 percent) or did not experience significant displacement (58 percent) to say that the state has been helpful to their own recovery.

It should be noted that state aid applicants are not much more likely to say that the federal government has been helpful. While 49 percent say that New Jersey’s programs have been helpful, 53 percent say the same of FEMA and other federal programs. Unlike the state program, though, opinions of the federal program do not vary significantly by displacement status. Those who are still displaced (50 percent) are about as likely as those who have moved back into their homes (55 percent) or were not displaced for long (48 percent) to say the federal government has been helpful.

“Applicants for New Jersey’s recovery assistance tend to be negative about the program so far, especially those who have not been able to get back into their homes more than a year after the storm hit,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Among New Jerseyans in hard hit areas who applied for reNew Jersey Stronger assistance, 83 percent say they were approved for a $10,000 Sandy resettlement grant, if they resettled within their county of residence. Only 15 percent, though, report being approved for sought-after RREM assistance that provides up to $150,000 for home rehabilitation, reconstruction, elevation and mitigation. Also, only 9 percent say they have been approved for up to $30,000 in hazard mitigation aid to elevate homes in 100-year floodplains. None report being awarded homebuyer assistance of up to $50,000 in no-payment loans if they purchase a home in a Sandy-hit area and live there for five years.

There are no significant income differences in approval for the resettlement grants. For RREM assistance, though, those earning less than $50,000 (30 percent) are somewhat more likely to report being approved for this aid when compared to those earning from $50,000 to just under $100,000 (16 percent) or $100,000 or more (8 percent).

Overall, just under half (45 percent) of applicants report that the state has denied them services or assistance they feel they needed. Ocean County residents (49 percent) are slightly more likely to feel that way than those in Monmouth County (41 percent) or other parts of the state (39 percent).

Among those who have been denied, about half (54 percent) report being denied RREM assistance and 27 percent report being denied hazard mitigation grants. Also, 24 percent say that they were told that they were wait-listed but are not sure where they are in the process and another 25 percent of applicants say that they were told that the program has no money.

“There appears to a great deal of confusion about the program. A review of responses from our survey panel suggests that applicants may have been provided information that has produced more confusion about the process rather than less,” Murray said.

Three-in-four applicants report that the process to sign up for reNew Jersey Stronger assistance was basically easy, although only 29 percent said it was very easy. Another 46 percent said it was somewhat easy. Overall, a similar number of state applicants report that the federal process was basically easy to follow (76 percent). However, lower income residents making under $50,000 a year (65 percent) were somewhat less likely than those earning from $50,000 to just under $100,000 (76 percent) or $100,000 or more (83 percent) to say that the New Jersey process was easy. There is no significant income difference reported for ease of the federal application experience.

While most applicants say that the process to sign up for assistance was basically easy, they are less positive about the information they have received since starting the process. Overall, just 37 percent say that it has been easy to get information from the state over the past few months compared to 55 percent who say it has been difficult. Those who report being denied reNew Jersey Stronger assistance (68 percent) are more likely than those who have not been denied (44 percent) to say they have had a difficult time getting information from the state. Also, those who continue to be displaced from their homes (66 percent) are more likely than those who have moved back home (48 percent) or were never displaced (45 percent) to say they have had a difficult time getting information from the state. There are no significant differences by income for getting recovery information from the state.

It should be noted that aid applicants are not having any more luck getting information from the federal government. Just 36 percent say that it has been easy to get recovery information from the federal government including FEMA and the SBA, while another 53 percent say it has been difficult.

Overall, 22 percent of reNew Jersey Stronger applicants report that they have fully recovered from the storm or expect to be fully recovered in the next few months. Another 31 percent say they expect to fully recover in about a year, 20 percent say it will take two or three years, 13 percent say it will take longer than three years and 14 percent feel they will never fully recover. Among those who are still displaced from their homes, fewer than half (44 percent) feel they will recover within the year. This compares to 61 percent of those who have moved back into their homes and 58 percent who were not displaced by Sandy.

This release marks the third installment of results from Monmouth University’s tracking panel of New Jersey residents who were hardest hit by Sandy. Two prior reports were released in October 2013 and can be found at www.monmouth.edu/polling. Future reports from this project will the track the ongoing recovery progress and concerns of the impacted New Jersey residents in the panel.

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The Farm Bill: What’s in it for New Jersey Farms?

By Michele S. Byers

After more than two years of debate, Congress has finally passed the Agricultural Act of 2014, better known as the Farm Bill. So what does it mean for the Garden State?

The quick answer is that the Farm Bill affects us all, farmers and city dwellers. This five-year, $958 billion behemoth has been described – quite accurately – as impacting “everything we eat, wear and drive.”

Perhaps one of its biggest benefits to New Jersey is the “Farm and Ranch Lands” conservation funding to permanently preserve working farms: $1 billion nationwide over the next 10 years. The bill also renews funding for other important conservation and organic agriculture programs.

Through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, more than 170 farms – most of them small and family-owned – already have been preserved throughout the Garden State. More can now be put into the preservation pipeline.

Farmland preservation is vital here in the nation’s most densely populated state. New Jersey’s agricultural industry hinges on a critical mass of land dedicated to farming. Each year, an estimated 2 million acres of America’s farms, ranches, forests, wildlife habitat, and other open spaces are fragmented into smaller parcels or lost to development, according to the President’s 2013 Annual Economic Report to Congress.

Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program funds are used to buy and retire the development rights on prime farmland, keeping the land open and affordable for the next generation of farmers. That, in turn, ensures New Jerseyans’ access to fresh, locally grown and raised foods.

New Jersey has its own state Farmland Preservation Program, with funding that can match the federal funds. But without the state match, New Jersey will have a tough time using the federal money. That would be a huge loss, given the hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farmland still to be preserved.

In addition to the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Farm Bill includes a myriad of conservation programs to help farmers transition to organic agriculture, protect water quality and quantity and restore wetlands and grasslands.

And the new Farm Bill restores a commitment to the continued growth and success of organic and sustainable farmers, including much needed support for the next generation of farmers who will need to confront a changing climate, higher input costs, less reliable water resources, more regionalized food markets, and increased demand for sustainable and organically produced foods.

Another key program includes $100 million for new farmer training and education programs through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. New farmers are essential to sustaining a viable farming industry in New Jersey.

For more information on the Farm Bill, visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Campaign at: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/2014-farm-bill-by-numbers/.

To help ensure we take full advantage of the Farm Bill’s farmland preservation funds, please urge your representatives in the New Jersey Assembly to pass long-term funding for land preservation. The state Senate has already taken action. To find your district’s Assembly representatives, go to www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. 

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