The Sandy relief fund chaired by New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie has raised more than $32 million so far. But four months after the superstorm, none of that aid has reached storm victims yet.
In an interview, Mary Pat Christie pointed to the logistical challenge of starting a charity from scratch, the relief fund’s focus on addressing long-term recovery needs, instead of short-term relief, and her own “methodical” approach to putting the proper resources and safeguards in place, as reasons for the delay.
It was never the intent for the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund to quickly provide monetary aid directly to storm victims, she noted. Instead, the plan was to lend support to reputable nonprofit groups that will be providing victims with financial assistance and other services in the months and years to come. The relief fund plans to distribute $1 million in grants this week, with another $5 million to follow several weeks after that.“I have taken excruciating steps to make sure that we give the money out in a really judicious way,” Mary Pat Christie said.
“You want accountability, you get accountability when you go through a methodical structure,” she said. “So, in three years when I’m still distributing money at Hurricane Sandy Relief, ask me if we're doing enough."
Mary Pat Christie’s defense of her charity’s performance, however, comes on the heels of the pointed barbs her husband, Gov. Chris Christie, has hurled at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Speaker of the House John Boehner, among others, for what the governor sees as inexcusable delays in helping the state’s residents, businesses and communities still reeling from the Oct. 29 storm. Christie famously called Congress’ holdup of Sandy relief “disgusting.”
'Let's move it'
The deliberate pace of Mary Pat Christie’s 4-month-old charity contrasts with the Robin Hood Foundation’s rapid turnaround of the $67 million raised by the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief.
To date, Robin Hood has awarded more than $50 million in grants to dozens of nonprofit groups, with nearly 40 percent of the funds earmarked for relief efforts in New Jersey. The foundation expects to commit almost all of the remaining concert money by the end of the month.Mary Pat Christie, however, says the comparison is unfair. Robin Hood has 25 years of experience and 85 employees, while her charity has only four people on staff.
Mary Pat Christie’s former chief of staff and director of protocol, Cam Henderson, who had no prior experience running a charitable foundation, has been tapped to serve as the fund’s executive director, at an annual salary of $160,000. The average compensation for top executives of nonprofit organizations with budgets between $25 million and $50 million in 2009 was $309,466, the charity noted.
“We have a very, very thin staff, really hard workers. We get everything we can on a pro bono basis,” Mary Pat Christie said, as she sat at a conference table in the charity’s spartan headquarters in Harding, located on the top floor of a converted barn. A local firm, Hampshire Real Estate Cos., is donating the office space.
Mary Pat Christie’s relief fund announced on Dec. 27 that it was making an initial commitment of $1 million in startup funds for long-term recovery committees that will be coordinating relief programs at the county level for the next several years.
However, those funds hadn’t been released as of last week. The delay stems from the fact that the recovery groups were subsequently required to submit formal grant requests to the relief fund for review by Feb. 15.
The charity’s grant committee, which Mary Pat Christie is not a member of, met two weeks later to vote on the grant amounts, which were publicly announced March 6. The six county committees receiving the grants, including the groups serving Monmouth and Ocean counties, should have the funds on hand sometime this week, the charity said.
But that $1 million in aid represents just 3 percent of the amount the charity has raised. That doesn’t sit well with storm victim Gigi Liaguno-Dorr.
“That's absolutely 100 percent unacceptable, because we want help yesterday,” said Liaguno-Dorr, of Middletown, who is still at battling her insurance company over the destruction of her Union Beach restaurant, Jakeabob’s Bay.
“She's the governor's wife. If anybody can push it through, she can,” she said. “Let’s move it.”