New York City’s recovery effort following Superstorm Sandy was a boon for consultants who failed to do required work and left thousands of victims without help long after the storm ravaged the City — and problems continue to this day, according to an audit released by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.
The Comptroller’s audit revealed the City’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations (HRO) failed to properly monitor contractors and paid $6.8 million to them for work that that was flawed or incomplete – contributing to extensive delays in the delivery of aid to more than 20,000 people seeking help.
“New York City’s response to Sandy was a case study in dysfunction,” Stringer said. “During the course of this audit, I went to affected communities to hear first-hand the stories of the recovery from hundreds of City residents — from the endless delays, to the lost paperwork and the maddening lack of progress. With this audit, we present a new level of detail about how the City allowed consultants to run amok and what must be done to ensure these mistakes are never again repeated.”
The audit examined the Build it Back Single Family Program – which focused on owner-occupants of properties with one-to-four units affected by Sandy – from June1, 2013 toAugust 1, 2014.
The findings were enhanced by testimony from six public hearings that Stringer’s office held in areas hardest hit by the storm, which were attended by hundreds of New Yorkers. The audit included detailed reviews of a random sample of 70 applicants, plus reviews of program design, management and operations by HRO and its contractors.
Immediately following the storm, the City engaged Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to design a relief program at the cost of $6.1 million dollars, and then contracted with Public Financial Management (PFM), a Pennsylvania-based firm, to provide oversight and management of various subcontractors, including URS Group, Inc., and Solix Inc.
Under the terms of these contracts, the subcontractors were to provide intake assistance to victims seeking aid, process applications, determine their eligibility, offer customer support and help New Yorkers navigate a complicated system.
The Comptroller’s audit found that:
Contractors were paid millions for flawed and incomplete work, delaying aid;
Poor management led to double billing by consultants and payments for inadequately supported travel and other costs;
Contractors failed to meet specified standards in hiring front-line staffers;
Superstorm Sandy victims were shuffled from one staff person to the next, many of whom were not familiar with their cases:
Applicants were frequently forced to submit duplicative paperwork;
Build it Back’s communication with applicants wasn’t timely, accurate or effective;
Frequent changes in procedural requirements confused and frustrated storm victims;
“Behind each finding there’s a human story,” Comptroller Stringer said. “Our hearings on Sandy left us all asking the question, why did this happen? What went wrong? We know now why the initial desperation of people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed gave way to anger at a process that buried them in red tape and offered little or no help. Left to fend for themselves, dealing with contractors who were not held accountable by City officials, the Build it Back process was in shambles.”
According to Stringer, subcontractors who failed to deliver adequate services have continued to operate Build it Back for more than a year without valid contracts. He said that, if there are no valid contracts in place, the City has limited leverage over its vendors’ work and cannot hold them accountable for their performance.
Stringer says the de Blasio Administration has improved operations by engaging staff to actively supervise contractors, establishing a single point of contact protocol, and working to process applications more expediently.
However, he said work remains to be done to improve oversight, accountability and results and the Comptroller’s Office made several recommendations to HRO, the majority of which it said were already implemented or were in the process of being implemented.
“Government failed the victims of Sandy, but now we must move forward. I welcome the opportunity to work with the Mayor and other City leaders to ensure that our future responses to storm emergencies are better managed and more accountable to those we serve,” Stringer concluded.
To see the audit report, click here.