License drives N.J.'s decision to block aid
Mark Jameson is locked in a dispute about where he lived when his Brick home was flooded by Sandy. He says he moved into the one-time vacation home in 2010 during a divorce, but the state doesn't believe him. STAFF VIDEO BY THOMAS P. COSTELLO
On a sunny summer day in Brick, Mark Jameson recounts what the neighborhood looked like during superstorm Sandy. His eyes dart up, as if he's watching the shingles from his roof fly overhead all over again.His tale of flooding and losing everything and the resulting stress is a familiar and compelling one, but the state of New Jersey doesn't believe it's real. Jameson can't convince them he was truly living there that night.Absent proof from a narrow list of acceptable sources, Jameson will not get the financial help that anyone else in his stated position is entitled to. As a result, the 45-year-old contractor says his home on Valencia Drive may become like others on his street — dark and empty."Thousands of people have the same issues," he said, pointing to seemingly abandoned homes on his street. "They're just fed up and they're walking away from their homes. What do you do?"Jameson is reacting to the state's clawback of a $10,000 Resettlement grant he was given in July 2013 and the reversal of his initial approval for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) program, the state's largest homeowner rebuilding initiative.The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which runs most of the of state's recovery programs, says that its hands are tied by federal regulations. Without an up-to-date address on certain governmental documents, Jameson is out of luck."We base our eligibility determinations strictly on the documents applicants submit," said Lisa Ryan, DCA spokeswoman, who declined for privacy reasons to talk about Jameson's specific circumstances.Did the state do what it could to help a homeowner rebuild? Or did it actively work against him? The answers depend on who you ask.Upon closer inspectionJameson says he's been living in his Valencia Drive home since early 2010 when he moved out of the Morris County home he shared with his then-wife.The split-up couple's vacation home became his only home, but he didn't change the address on his driver's license or update his voter registration on the advice of attorneys who said doing so might weaken his pending divorce case, Jameson said.He finally had his address changed on November 7, 2012 after the authorities told him he would need a driver's license that reflects his Brick address in order to continue to get access to it after Sandy, according to court documents obtained by the Asbury Park Press.
Mark Jameson said he fled from his home in Brick during superstorm Sandy. New Jersey doesn't believe him.
This change later raised a red flag to the DCA as they were performing cursory checks on his eligibility."I knew nothing about grants at this time, or having to lift my house," Jameson told the Press during an interview in Brick earlier this month. "It's not like I ran down and tried changing everything because I heard there was money coming."After learning that he had changed his address a week after the storm, the DCA demanded he prove that his primary home was in Brick when Sandy struck.There are two primary ways to satisfy that residency requirement: By showing the Brick address on his driver's license, or on both his voter registration and 2012 income tax returns. He hadn't updated his voter registration since 2008 and Jameson says his accountant had failed to submit his 2012 return until June 2015, when he went looking for a copy to give to the DCA.Instead of those forms, Jameson instead gave the DCA a Brick Police report showing a traffic crash in January 2012, a Brick gym membership that has been active since 2009, another Brick Police report detailing a theft from one of Jameson's work vehicles a month before Sandy, medical records from a brief hospitalization Jameson had in Brick in August 2012, and more. None of those are acceptable alternatives, according to the DCA.Later, during an appeals hearing in front of a judge, Jameson presented testimony from his across-the-street neighbor, a Brick Police detective and others, all of whom stated — under oath and threat of perjury — that they had no doubt he was a full-time resident of the house.Jameson was denied at each step. The DCA's position — affirmed by a judge — seemed to be that the word of his neighbors, police and others along with a trove of locally-sourced records and receipts was not enough to trump the address line on his driver's license or the other acceptable governmental forms."Well, I don't have those documents," he told the Press. "So how do you prove that you live here if you don't have any of these documents?"The DCA first conducts an internal three-person panel for questionable applications. Upon rejection, a homeowner can request a hearing with a judge. More than 2,800 RREM applicants have been denied, according to the DCA, and 454 have asked for a hearing.It was revealed during Jameson's hearing that his case had resulted in a split vote, 2-1, to deny during his internal DCA appeal. In fact, he was initially ruled eligible by the panel, but then one of the members reviewed the case again and reversed her vote, according to the hearing transcript.There is rarely dissension on the panel, according to the DCA's lawyer on the case, Nicole Colone. The vote-switching member later told Colone that if she had seen all of the information Jameson was able to provide during the hearing — which is more comprehensive — she might have reversed her "no" vote, the transcript shows.On September 9, Jameson and his attorney, Brian Nelson, made a last-ditch plea directly to the commissioner of the DCA, who can overrule the judge's determination. Fewer than 50 rejected RREM applicants have taken this step, according to the state. Jameson and Nelson have not heard back yet.Fraud protection vs. wrongful denialA judge is engaged "because they can consider a broader range of evidence," said Ryan, the DCA spokeswoman. The DCA doesn't have that same flexibility to accept testimony or other means to prove of residency, she said.However, DCA wasn't merely standing on the sidelines during the hearing. They mounted a spirited defense of the denial, one that the department has continued to argue for.During the hearing, Colone dismissed the substance of Jameson's witnesses because they were his "good friends." For example, she implied that Brick PD Detective Daniel Waleski was at least embellishing his testimony when he said that he drove by Jameson's house once or twice a week and saw his work truck parked at his home.In her response to Nelson's letter to the DCA commissioner, she makes reference to the fact that Jameson's 2012 tax return wasn't filed until this year."Interestingly, (Jameson's) 2010 and 2011 income tax returns were also submitted after the storm," Colone wrote.It should be noted that the state has not charged Jameson for fraudulently claiming the property as his primary residence, something it is not shy about prosecuting.Since March 2014, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office has indicted 37 people for lying to receive federal disaster assistance, including five in Ocean County earlier this month. Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor the IRS are alleging crimes as well.
To Nelson, Jameson's attorney, the legal wrangling is nothing more than the state putting obstacles in the way of a homeowner in need."Taxpayer dollars are being spent on this attorney to try to make sure Mark is denied relief to which he is legally entitled, but being denied due to complete bureaucratic nonsense," Nelson told the Press in an email.No contrary evidence soughtThere are reasonable questions about Jameson's eligibility.As Colone pointed out in the hearing, Jameson did have his address changed in a few instances, which would seem to counter his position that he wasn't updating any records during his pending divorce on the advice of attorneys.Jameson missed every opportunity — car registration, dog licenses — to update his address where he could have really helped his case. Even the flood insurance for the damaged home was mailed to the Morris County address.Perhaps more problematic, his ex-wife Dawn Jameson said that Jameson had bounced around after their separation but had moved back to their marital home by the end of the 2012 summer."(He) was sleeping (in Towaco) every night," she said when contacted by the Press.However, the state never presented Dawn Jameson's testimony because, she said, they never reached out to her. In fact, the state didn't present any new evidence or testimony. Instead they opted to undermine the credibility of what Jameson's side had put on the record."There's no police reports of me being up there, there's no car accidents," Jameson told the Press. "There's nothing. I haven't been up there. ... Anybody who says I wasn't living down here, then show me where I was living."Familiar struggleThe house still requires a lot of work. Jameson, echoing many Shore homeowners, said he didn't get enough from flood insurance to pay for all the necessary repairs. He's expecting it could cost upwards of $100,000 to elevate his home, something he has to begin by January or the town will take away his temporary certificate of occupancy. Without the RREM grant, Jameson said he won't be able to elevate.Not only was he rejected from RREM but he must return the $10,000 Resettlement grant."I don't have the $10,000," Jameson said. "If I had it, I'd use it to fix the pipes."Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, firstname.lastname@example.org
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