Government oversight a must on superstorm Sandy spending

A tree blocks the roadway in Sandy Creek A tree blocks the roadway in Sandy Creek as residents attempts to pass. (Oct 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Amanda Voisard

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

It took five months for Comptroller George Maragos to begin asking questions about how millions of dollars in Sandy-related aid funds are being spent in Nassau County.

Yes, superstorm Sandy was a disaster of historic proportions; and, yes, it is essential that people, businesses, neighborhoods and communities damaged by the storm get what they need with as few unnecessary bureaucratic delays as possible.

But that does not negate the need for oversight in Nassau or any other municipality on Long Island to ensure that money is not being wasted or diverted from intended uses.

The aftermath of any disaster breeds opportunity for shenanigans, which is why, early on post-Sandy, there were warnings about everything from gas gougers to building-permit-expeditor scams.

Now, as more and more aid money begins flowing into municipalities, renewed vigilance is necessary.

Maragos last week began asking for payroll and expense records from contractors doing work in Nassau. He said he did so to send a "strong message" that the comptroller's office would be keeping an eye on things.

That's good. But Maragos' move came after Nassau already had paid out $35 million to one contractor, Looks Great of Huntington, which is slated to receive a total of almost $70 million for its work.

One area ripe for comptroller review is why the county is allowing the firm to work under a "purchase order" rather than a public works contract -- a loophole that county officials say does not require Nassau to collect subcontractor payroll and other information from the company.

This kind of arrangement makes no sense from a public policy point of view. Why would Nassau choose to abdicate its oversight role?

Five months after Sandy, it makes no sense. A spokeswoman for Looks Great said the company would cooperate with Maragos' review.

But does Nassau have similar arrangements with other firms? And would they decide to cooperate, too? That question merits consideration as well.

Five months after Sandy, some residents have yet to make it home. They're waiting for everything from insurance checks -- that's a whole different column -- to supplies.

"The biggest issue that remains is bringing public and private resources directly to the individuals, businesses and infrastructure projects that are in need," said Eric Alexander of Vision Long Island, which is working with volunteer groups in several communities.

"In one example of the many we hear each week, there are building supplies sitting in a warehouse where bureaucracy has sidetracked their distribution," he said.

There's got to be a way to streamline the process. And part of that process is ensuring that money -- for supplies, cleanup, fortifying infrastructure, rebuilding roads, kick-starting businesses -- flows where it should.

There are 18 federal and 35 state agencies currently involved in Sandy response on Long Island, along with two counties and several towns, villages and cities.

Residents are still suffering. There's no time -- and there should be no money -- to waste.

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