Build It Back A Boondoggle Paying Millions To Contractors For Bungled Work, Says Audit

Build It Back A Boondoggle Paying Millions To Contractors For Bungled Work, Says Audit
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A house damaged in Superstorm Sandy

New York City’s Superstorm Sandy recovery program Build it Back paid more than $6.8 million to contractors for work they bungled, and still needs to improve despite progress under Mayor Bill de Blasio, according to a report from Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The comptroller made public the results of his audit of the city agency today, blasting the program for wasteful spending, and blaming a lack of oversight for delays to more than 20,000 applicants seeking relief.

“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.”

The audit looked at the Build it Back Single Family Program, meant to provide relief to owner-occupants of residential properties with four units or less. It examined records from June 1, 2013, to August 1, 2014, a timespan that saw Michael Bloomberg hand over the reins to Bill de Blasio.

Stringer’s office claims the audit revealed millions of dollars paid out for incomplete work, double billing and undocumented travel. Furthermore, it found that more than 100 procedural changes were implemented over the course of year, spurring further delays and frustrating homeowners. It also found that many of the same subcontractors that milked the system are still on the job.

The audit also criticized the day-to-day handling of cases, claiming that Sandy victims were shuffled between staff members rather than receiving individual specialists for each case, and that applicants were frequently forced to fill out and submit paperwork they had already completed.

There existed little incentive to do more efficient work, Stringer’s office said, since most payments were distributed upfront – and there was no oversight to ensure work was completed. More than $17 million were paid out to consultants before Sandy victims received a dime, the audit found.

The report acknowledged strides made under de Blasio’s administration, finding that the new mayor assigned city staff to actively supervise contractors and funnel applicants through the system more smoothly, ultimately leading to a flow of relief dollars to directly benefit victims. But it also recommended additional measures to the mayor, including establishing time frames in work contracts to increase accountability.

The mayor’s office told Sheepshead Bites that Stringer’s audit echoed the findings of a report issued by de Blasio nearly a year ago, and that all of the recommendations were already implemented.

“This audit simply reiterates what the administration already outlined in its Build it Back report nearly one year ago – and every recommendation is already implemented or being implemented as part of the Mayor’s overhaul,” said Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for the mayor. “Last year, the City took over direct management of all Build it Back case management, while renegotiating contracts to secure significant savings that were put back into relief efforts. To be clear – no vendor has received payments in excess of the total amount they are owed to date.”

Meanwhile, they chafed at Stringer’s focus on a time period in which de Blasio’s office was just gathering steam.

A chart distributed with the audit shows the dramatic difference in reimbursement checks versus contractor payments – ending with just a small amount of payments to victims and a flood to contractors.

Chart showing payments to Build it Back contractors vs applicants. Distributed by Comptroller Stringers office.
Chart showing payments to Build it Back contractors vs applicants. Distributed by Comptroller Stringers office.

But the mayor’s office distributed a chart that widens the timeframe, and shows payments to victims dramatically increasing and ultimately outpacing those to contractors beginning at the end of 2014.

Chart showing payments to Build it Back contractors versus victims. Distributed by Mayor's office.)
Chart showing payments to Build it Back contractors versus victims. Distributed by Mayor’s office.)

In the latest update from the mayor’s Housing and Recovery office, which oversees the program, there have been 1,117 construction starts, 3,113 checks (totaling $57 million) distributed, and nearly 9,000 more having chosen an option or in the design phase – all compared to zero when de Blasio took office, they note.

The mayor’s office also said they will begin reviewing payments made for work in 2013, and any duplicative payments or payments made without supporting documentation are reclaimed by the city.

The full audit can be read here.

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