Assessing Sandy’s handiwork

Photo by Ron Leir With his wife, Maria, holding the Bible, John Peneda (c.) is sworn in as new assessor by Mayor Alberto Santos at June 25 council session.
Photo by Ron Leir
With his wife, Maria, holding the Bible, John Peneda (c.) is sworn in as new assessor by Mayor Alberto Santos at June 25 council session.


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


Now that Kearny has a permanent tax assessor, he’ll likely be grappling with claims by multiple home and businesses owners that the value of their properties have been diminished by the onslaught of Superstorm Sandy last fall.

Nationwide, the bill for Sandy’s handiwork has been reckoned at nearly $70 billion in property wreckage.

Based on preliminary surveys, the Kearny Office of Emergency Management figured that some 300 industries and commercial businesses suffered more than $50 million in losses while 150 homes and 50 apartments took a hit of about $8 million.

Not to mention the shocks absorbed by municipal infrastructure, including water control systems, rolling stock, debris clearance and employee overtime, calculated at about $4 million.

For 2013, Peneda will be dealing with 129 tax appeals from residential property owners and an additional 50 from commercial owners, with most of that latter expected to end up in state tax court for final deliberation.

“We figure most of the state tax cases should be settled by the third or fourth week of July,” he said.

Last year, tax records show, the town ended up with slightly more than 200 appeals – residential and commercial.

What the impact has been on the town’s overall property evaluation is something Peneda will have to analyze once he’s settled into his new position. Could there be a townwide reassessment or revaluation in the town’s near future? That would be hard to predict, Peneda said. “The last reval we had in Kearny was in 1985. That would be something that the county Tax Board would have to order us to do.”

Appointed as interim assessor in February, following the retirement of Gerry Pontrelli, Peneda was already working for Kearny as the executive director of the its Urban Enterprise Zone program when he jumped at the chance to take on new municipal responsibilities.

So he registered to take the state-mandated tax assessor exam which, he said, is administered only twice a year. “I studied for it evenings and on weekends and I did all this around planning for my daughter’s wedding,” he said.

In late March Peneda took the six-hour test and later learned he was one of “only nine of 40 who passed” from around the state.

His appointment, which was approved by the mayor and Town Council June 25, took effect July 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year. His salary has yet to be determined. Peneda currently earns about $70,000 as UEZ director.

As Peneda struggles to evaluate the impact of the storm on homeowner’s property values, and as property owners look to their insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recoup their losses, the town is also pushing FEMA for as much reimbursement for the damage it has documented.

Michael Neglia of Neglia Engineering, the town’s Lyndhurst-based consulting engineering firm, said that it’s been slow going dealing with the federal agency.

Over the past several months, he said he’s met with three different FEMA representatives and, at each session, the FEMA agent has looked at the town’s damaged pump stations and reviewed his repair estimates and the town “had high grades” from FEMA for its presentation. “We took a significant step in the process but we didn’t get the money yet,” Neglia told the mayor and council.

Neglia explained this favorable response only manages to get Kearny “into the first round of funding,” meaning that the town will likely be deemed eligible for partial reimbursement for “actual costs to replace or repair” equipment damaged by Sandy, “not for upgrades” that his firm has recommended.

And, Neglia warned, if the town decided to go forward with any improvements now – without waiting for a final deliberation by FEMA – it would “lose its eligibility” for any monetary awards FEMA made down the road. So far, Neglia said, FEMA has approved the prospect of funding Kearny a total of $691,843 to facilitate repairs “to get [damaged pumping station] back on line” but “not to elevate pumps out of the flood zone,” for example.

That amount, however, is only a fraction of the $3,960,000 that Neglia requested in his November 2012 application to FEMA for post-Sandy reimbursement.

Neglia proposed three “phases” of funding, assigning highest priority to the first phase. For an estimated $990,000, Neglia proposed replacing the Quincy Place, Gunnell Oval and Pennsylvania Ave. sewage pumping stations, installing pump alarms and sensor devices capable of detecting loss of power, purchase of portable generators for pump stations, firehouses, public works and Town Hall, repairing only partly operable tidal gates and reinforcing section of the concrete headwall.

“The three sewage pump stations out of service present an immediate public health threat to the town,” Neglia wrote. “In addition, Phase 1 provides a rapid response to the town’s need for standby power at key facilities.”

As Phase 2 improvements, reckoned at $1,720,000, Neglia recommended installing permanent standby generators at the sewage pump stations at E. Midland Ave. and King St. and at the stormwater pump stations at Harrison Ave., Sellers St., Garfield Ave. and John Hay Ave., fixing the electrical panel at the Harrison Ave. station and repairing the electrical service at John Hay Ave. station to permit both pumps to operate at the same time.

For Phase 3, at a cost of $1,250,000, Neglia advised installing safeguards to protect motors, electrical service and controls at the Harrison, Garfield and Hay pump stations and, in particular, at Garfield and Hay which, he said, “affects over 100 homes” in those areas. He also recommended replacing the tide gates at Franks Creek and repairing the headwall.

Learn more about the writer ...