IN THE NEWS - Staten Island Advance: While NYC dawdles over Sandy task force, Staten Island pols launch state-level panel

Andrew J Lanza

December 13, 2012

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The borough's two state senators were among a group of Albany lawmakers Monday to launch a statewide task force aimed at Sandy recovery.

State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) is a co-chair.

Its mission: to help direct an infusion of expected billions in federal aid to communities hardest-hit by the October killer storm, including the East and South Shores of Staten Island.

On the homefront, though, the Island-specific Sandy task force, seemingly agreed to by the Bloomberg administration last month, appears no closer to fruition -- leading City Councilman James Oddo to express "frustration" over the "mixed signals."

"The task force we discussed has been frozen in time," said Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn), who proposed reconstituting the long-dormant Growth Management Task Force weeks ago in response to Sandy. "Let's meet. Let's meet every day for the next 30 days."

Not only haven't there been any meetings, the group itself hasn't been assembled, nor has an agenda been agreed upon.

City Economic Development Corporation head Seth Pinsky was recently tapped by Mayor Bloomberg to chair the rebuilding effort in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. And while Pinsky is slated to meet with Island officials in Borough Hall Wednesday, according to Oddo, Oddo said a Staten Island-specific task force needs to be put together now in response to homeowners here grappling with whether, when and how to rebuild.

"We need to go neighborhood by neighborhood," Oddo told the Advance.

Asked to comment on the creation of a task force here, the director of communications for the Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery didn't even use the phrase "task force" in his response.

"The mayor has charged ... Seth Pinsky with creating a global, long-term recovery plan for the communities hit hardest by Sandy, reviewing building codes that will need to be updated, evaluating current evacuation maps and gathering information about federal and state programs available to help these communities rebuild," said Peter Spencer. "At some point soon, this process will involve working with local leaders on Staten Island to create a comprehensive rebuilding plan."

But Oddo said Pinsky's overall mission "should not take precedence" over specific needs here.

"Every day, you try to understand where we are in this process, and it is unbelievably frustrating, full of mixed signals," said Oddo. "Every day, you ask, 'Where are we at?' Seth Pinsky is trying to put his own team in place. He says there is a process for that and that he wants to make sure it is done intelligently. And while I can understand that, to ask the people of Staten Island to have more patience is a sin.

"They don't seem to understand the six weeks of hell that people on Staten Island have been living," Oddo said. "From everything I am hearing, the mayor's Rapid Recovery program is at best problematic, with appointments not kept, with homeowners being told by the city, 'We'll be back,' but not giving any idea when. We were told a week ago that Rapid Recovery would be ramped up, but that hasn't happened. We need to start making some decisions now. I want Staten Islanders in the room when decisions start to get made about Staten Island. The city also said weeks ago that 200 houses around the city would start to be demolished, but that hasn't happened either. Those houses are giant Petri dishes."

Along those lines, Oddo said he is slated to meet with members of the city Department of Buildings and Rapid Recovery on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Lanza and state Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) -- who said they hope to be part of the borough task force as well -- said their presence on the Senate's bipartisan Sandy Task Force is essential to make sure Staten Island is not left out once federal monies begin to flow.

President Obama has requested $60.4 billion in aid to New York and New Jersey, but the package must pass muster with Congress.

The two Island lawmakers were among those on hand to make their own task force announcement in the devastated Queens community of the Rockaways.

"The task forces will be operating on two different levels," said Lanza. "The city's task force, and they haven't even announced the composition of that, will, I assume, be marshaling the resources of the city to make zoning changes, building code amendments, among other things. At the state level, Sen. Savino and I will have a seat at the table to help determine how the money from the federal government is spent. It is important for us to be on the state task force, because the federal money will be flowing through the state. We want a utilization of resources and a direct flow from the state to Staten Island. We want to keep Staten Island in the spotlight."

Said Ms. Savino: "Each region of the state that was impacted was impacted differently. We want to be able to deliver resources here. We want to answer Staten Island's needs. This is not one-size-fits-all. We don't want money coming into the state and not coming to Staten Island. We don't want money peeled off. We want the money we need coming here and we want it spent appropriately."

As a side note, there was a political component to the state Senate task force announcement. Members of all three Senate conferences were in attendance, including the Republican and Democratic conferences and the Independent Democratic Conference, of which Ms. Savino is a member. The IDC is expected to keep the Republicans as the majority power when the state Legislature reconvenes next month.

Lanza's task force co-chair is state Sen. Malcom Smith (D-Queens), who came to Staten Island the day the president visited Sandy-impacted communities. He recently joined the IDC.