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Queens Chronicle

Build it Back has not built anything back

After problem-plagued program head resigns, residents want red tape cut

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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 12:34 pm, Thu Mar 6, 2014.

Kathryn Mallon, the head of the city’s problem-plagued Hurricane Sandy recovery program, Build it Back, abruptly resigned last week as residents’ frustration with the program she ran is reaching a peak.

Just this month, Mallon met with Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) and civic leaders in his office to discuss issues with Build it Back, including changing the way people enrolled in the program are prioritized. Build it Back was also criticized for being slow to release funds.

For thousands of people in areas ravaged by Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012, including Howard Beach, Hamilton Beach and Broad Channel, Build it Back has not been helpful at all, instead becoming a source of frustration as the program is riddled with issues from missed appointments to lost paperwork to complaints about little to no communication about documentation needed to receive money under the program, and ill-informed staff.

Less than 2 percent of the $1.5 billion allocated to the program has been released, according to city records, and not one house has been fixed by the program since it was created last June.

Despite the problems with the two programs she ran, their sharpest critics, including Goldfeder and Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), often praised Mallon for her accessibility.

“[I’m] really sorry to see Kathryn Mallon go, but I think Mayor de Blasio will keep Sandy recovery a priority,” Goldfeder said on Twitter.

Several sources say Mallon resigned on her own accord and was not removed by de Blasio. At an unrelated press conference in Maspeth Thursday morning, de Blasio thanked Mallon for her service.

A City Hall spokeswoman said Mallon’s deputy, Benjamin Jones, will serve as an interim head of the program until a permanent director is chosen.

Though she leaves with positive opinions on her performance, residents and civic leaders in Sandy-ravaged communities are looking toward new leadership and a new direction for the program.

Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Community Board 6 and a resident of Howard Beach, called the program “a disaster.”

His house was damaged in Sandy, but he said the Build it Back representatives that came to his house wanted to inspect parts of the home that were not affected.

“They wanted to take a look at my second floor, and I couldn’t understand why,” he said, noting that his second floor was completely unscathed by the storm.

When he refused, the program’s representatives told him they had to reschedule a visit, which they still haven’t done.

Dan Mundy Jr., president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, was part of the meeting at Goldfeder’s office that Mallon attended earlier this month.

“I believe we’re making progress,” Mundy said. “By no means will I say that this is a system that has all its flaws worked out.”

Roger Gendron, president of the Hamilton Beach Civic Association, said he thought Build it Back was a worthy program, but needed to be overhauled.

“The biggest problem is that no one is getting money,” he said.

Gendron said there were still people in Hamilton Beach who had not yet moved back into their homes, but there are also people who are back in their homes and who have rebuilt, but are waiting for Build it Back to allocate funds for reimbursement.

“There are residents who are home, but have maxed-out credit cards and are in debt,” Gendron said. “They need this money.”

He added that some people have just about given up entirely despite having signed up for the program.

One of those people is Jean Ferrera-Rodriguez, who nearly 500 days after Sandy, finds her Hamilton Beach home still without a kitchen, dining or living room. She said she has just about given up on Build it Back. Instead, she said she has been able to move forward thanks to funds from the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities.

Ferrera-Rodriguez is classified as Priority One by Build it Back, but she still hasn’t seen any money. She said paperwork and misinformation prevented her case from moving forward.

Her issue is one Gendron has noticed; where low-priority applicants are getting help faster than higher priority homeowners like Ferrera-Rodriguez. Overhauling that issue was one of the problems identified in the meeting with Mallon that Goldfeder and Mundy attended.

Speaking on Monday in Staten Island about Sandy recovery efforts, de Blasio did not offer any specific ideas for fixing the problem.

“We know in my new administration it’s our obligation to put together a plan to build upon some of the things we think were done right in the previous administration, and address some of the challenges and some of the things that weren’t what they needed to be,” he said. “But we’re committed to doing that.”

The mayor did place the blame on Washington, saying the Sandy aid legislation that passed last year placed a number of regulations on the city that has made Build it Back move slowly.

“I think we can honestly say in the way that the federal legislation was written, the recovery effort was made – in some ways – more complicated,” he said.

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