TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie helped channel $6 million in federal Sandy recovery dollars to a project conceived years before the storm struck, in an Essex County town that was not particularly hard hit .
The funding, pushed for personally by the Republican governor, was announced less than two weeks before the town’s Democratic mayor formally endorsed him for reelection.
The development is an $18 million senior center and housing complex in Belleville called Franklin Manor. One third of the cost — $6 million — is being paid for by a $1.8 billion pot of federally funded Community Development Block Grants to help the state recover from Sandy.
Christie administration officials say the project will help those displaced from the storm from other towns, and was approved partly because it was already planned and would quickly fill that need. But statements from the governor and officials from Essex County and Belleville at the project’s unveiling barely mentioned storm recovery, focusing almost exclusively on how the 137-unit housing project would help keep Belleville’s seniors in town.
Now — With the George Washington Bridge scandal raging and the mayor of Hoboken claiming top Christie administration officials blackmailed her by threatening to withhold Sandy funds — an affordable housing advocate and a prominent Democrat are questioning whether the Christie administration is fairly distributing federal Sandy aid.
“We don’t know the whole story of what happened here yet. But Governor Christie should not be ordering Sandy funds directed to pet projects,” said Adam Gordon, a staff attorney for the Fair Share Housing Center.
“What it points to is the need for further inquiry into how Sandy funds were part and parcel of the governor’s campaign for reelection,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). “And how they were misused for political purposes rather than going to those who really in need.”
The project, which had been in the works for years, was jump-started in the spring. In late April, Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble had a breakfast meeting with Christie and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo at McLoone’s Boathouse in West Orange. It was the same restaurant where the two men, along with many other Essex County Democrats, would endorse Christie on June 11.
On May 1, when The Star-Ledger asked about the breakfast meeting, Kimble said he planned to endorse Christie and “I think the governor is going to help the town of Belleville with certain projects we need.”
On May 29, Christie was in Belleville for the ceremonial ground breaking of the complex that included Kimble, DiVincenzo and others .
Kimble praised the governor at the event. “Because of Gov. Christie’s commitment, senior citizens will be able to remain in their hometown, where they belong,” Kimble said.
Christie then described his direct involvement Read here