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State legislators tour devastation at Jersey Shore

Published: Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 9:33 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. — Mayors of Jersey Shore towns hard hit by Superstorm Sandy had a simple message for state legislators Thursday: We need help.

“We’re in desperate shape right now,” Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said, speaking just feet from the submerged remains of the Casino Pier roller coaster, which has become a symbol of Sandy’s devastating impact.

A bipartisan coalition of state Assembly members toured several Ocean County towns Thursday in an effort to understand the scope of the damage caused by Sandy one month ago. They began at the Seaside Heights boardwalk and headed north up Route 35, making stops in Ortley Beach, Normandy Beach and Mantoloking.

During the tour, legislators spoke with municipal officials about a host of issues they are facing, from concerns about rebuilding to how to help property owners wrangling with insurance companies. And while many of their residents struggle to put their lives back together, municipalities themselves are facing a double whammy: Municipal costs are soaring while significant chunks of their property tax bases have been wiped out.

In Brick, Mayor Stephen Acropolis said the storm damage resulted in a loss of about $400 million in ratables, which bring in about $8 million in property tax revenue. The town’s expenses for the storm will probably total between $40 million and $50 million, $18 million of which be for debris removal, Acropolis said.

Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher estimated that about 20 percent of the town’s tax base was gone. The town is bleeding cash. For example, Kelaher said police overtime costs in just one two-week period were $800,000. Dumping fees for debris removed is costing the town $1 million a week, he said.

“We need help from the federal government and the state Legislature. … There’s got to be a solution,” said Kelaher.

What that solution may be remained unclear Thursday.

The federal government is expected to pick up most of the tab for municipalities’ cleanup efforts, but the towns will have to cover at least a portion of the costs, said Assembly Republican Whip Scott Rumana.

Generally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses municipalities for 75 percent of their costs; Gov. Chris Christie has petitioned the federal agency to up its contribution to 90 percent. That still would leave towns on the hook for 10 percent.

“We can’t put that off on local government,” said Rumana. “We’re going to need to find some way to come up with that money.”

Asked about providing more state aid to municipalities, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who teared up at the sight of Seaside Heights’ battered boardwalk, said, “We have to look at what we are able to do. … A lot hinges on the federal government’s response to us.”

Christie has put the cost of Sandy destruction and disruption in the state at nearly $37 billion.

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