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New York City wrestles with how to track Superstorm Sandy funds

People walk at the Coney Island boardwalk during sunset on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy in the Brooklyn borough of New York,
People walk at the Coney Island boardwalk during sunset on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy in the Brooklyn borough of New York,

By Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's Bloomberg administration intends to launch a database within two weeks to better track the billions of dollars of federal relief for Superstorm Sandy victims, even as city legislators hope to craft a system of their own.

The competing plans come amid widespread concerns that many of the funds appropriated so far have evaded oversight, potentially leading to fraud and abuse.

At issue is the depth of information that should be provided about particular contracts and recipients. Spending on relief for victims of the October 2012 storm is expected to accelerate in the next year after a slow start in the first year after the disaster.

City council members have introduced legislation that would create a highly detailed database, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office says that proposal could violate Sandy victims' privacy by putting their personal information online.

"The bill could be construed to require these individual New Yorkers to have their personal information posted to an online public database for all to see simply because they received disaster recovery assistance from our program," said Thaddeus Hackworth, general council of NYC Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery Operations.

The administration has also said the legislation, as drafted, would burden businesses and contractors doing recovery work.

The legislation would require contractors - and then the city - to report how many jobs their projects created, what types of jobs they are, and whether they employed local workers. That is similar to data the city already collects for some other kinds of contracts.

Lawmakers and advocates for low-income New Yorkers said at the hearing that such data should be required in order to know whether the city's neediest Sandy victims are actually being helped.

Some workers have also been underpaid or not paid at all. A survey of organizations serving day laborers found that 80 percent experienced unpaid wages while doing Sandy cleanup and recovery work, according to an October 30 report by researchers at Baruch College.

The potential for money to disappear after a major disaster is huge.

In March, almost eight years after Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general found that nearly $700 million of federal relief funds had been given out to more than 24,000 homeowners who did not elevate their homes, as required, or who failed to comply with other elements of the grants.

New York State and New Jersey, which was also walloped by Sandy, for months have had some Sandy spending information in online public databases. New York City Comptroller John Liu has put some Sandy contract information in an online database that tracks all city spending, but there is no dedicated landing page for Sandy projects.

Incoming New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has proposed a Sandy audit bureau, which City Council members hope could work in tandem with their proposed database.

After his testimony, Hackworth said he was unable to answer many questions about the city's expected website to track Sandy spending.

"Are you kidding me?" responded Councilman Domenic Recchia. "We didn't come here today to hear, 'I can't answer that.'"

Three dozen city council members have signed onto the bill, more than enough to pass and survive any possible mayoral veto.

The administration's planned database will mirror one it created to track federal stimulus funding under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, passed by Congress to help cities and states rebound from the recession, Hackworth said.

"We fully support giving New Yorkers more information about how and where Sandy recovery dollars are being spent," said Bloomberg spokesman Jake Goldman in a statement to Reuters.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; editing by Prudence Crowther)

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