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Stringer to Build It Back: Show me the money!

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The city’s much-maligned Build It Back program is working great — for is contractors.

The hundreds of caseworkers subcontracted to help thousands of storm victims get aid through the Hurricane Sandy recovery scheme have pocketed more than five times more money than the residents have received.

Nearly $10 million in federal relief funds have gone to pay the caseworkers, while just $1.63 million has gone to stricken homeowners, according to the city’s own figures. Add in the money paid to contracted architects and inspectors — some flown in from out of state and put up in hotels — and the program’s total back-office expenses tally at least $20 million.

Comptroller Scott Stringer is preparing to audit the program — particularly its infamous case-management system — but Brooklyn storm victims and community leaders are already declaring Build It Back a bona fide boondoggle.

“It’s a crock,” said Gerritsen Beach resident and recovery advocate Jim Donovan of the vast gap between aid checks and consultant compensation.

Stories of mismanagement and tone-deafness have dogged the program almost since its inception.

At a recent hearing convened by Stringer, one Manhattan Beach resident said that the program wasted thousands of dollars on her case before realizing she was not eligible for Build It Back funds.

“Most of the cost associated with my case appears to be sheer waste,” said Phyllis Cion, a Wall Street financial advisor.

Cion took out a Small Business Administration loan in early 2013 to rebuild her basement, which she disclosed in her initial paperwork when she applied for Build It Back aid last July, she said.

In December, an engineer — flown in from Georgia — came to inspect her home. Then Build It Back paid a lead paint specialist to inspect her home again in March.

But on April 1 — April Fool’s Day — Cion’s caseworker told her the small-business loan made her ineligible for Build It Back aid — and that she actually owed $6,800 to the program.

That figure was later reduced to just $38.25, but the whole process amounted to a waste of time and money, said Cion.

“My case should have been thrown out in January,” she said.

The caseworkers who took so long to realize Cion was ineligible — and have lost paperwork and given incorrect information to hundreds of infuriated storm victims — are the subcontractors that have received $9,226,487 so far from Build It Back, through a $50 million, two-year contract the city signed with Philadelphia-based Public Financial Management, Inc. last July to vet applicants.

About 100 city staffers work for Build It Back, but they are far outnumbered by a menagerie of contractors and subcontractors, so tracking where the program’s money has gone is difficult, according to Deputy Comptroller Lisa Flores.

The Comptroller’s audit will try to sort out those layers of contracts, said Deputy Comptroller for Audits Marjorie Landa.

“A fundamental part of what we’re going to be doing is looking at where this money was spent — where those consultants are from, who those contractors are — we will be looking at that,” she said.

The Mayor’s office, which is responsible for Build It Back said that it was reevaluating its contracts.

“Following the housing recovery overhaul announced last month, the City is exploring changes to contracts,” said a spokeswoman.

Public Financial Management did not return calls for comment.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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