- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BELMAR, N.J. (AP) - Frustrated small business owners criticized Gov. Chris Christie’s administration Tuesday, saying they have yet to be approved for recovery grants nearly 18 months after Superstorm Sandy damaged their businesses.

The business owners spoke before a Christie town hall in Belmar at an informal event organized by the advocacy group Main Street Alliance.

During the town hall, Christie acknowledged that his administration’s response to the state’s worst natural disaster “has not gone perfectly,” but also noted that that recovery funds are flowing to businesses and homeowners faster than after any prior national disaster.

“I’m happy about the good things we’ve done, but I am not content,” Christie said. “I know there is still work to do.” This was Christie’s sixth visit to Belmar, in Monmouth County, since the October 2012 storm washed away the shore town’s 1.3-mile boardwalk.

The alliance says progress has been slower than the governor acknowledged. Spokeswoman Corinne Horowitz said a fraction of the 3,300 small businesses that have applied for grants have received them. She said just $15.2 million in business grants have been awarded to 314 businesses despite requests totaling $167 million. The alliance is asking Christie’s office to investigate.

Welding company owner Ken Akerman of Point Pleasant Beach said he drained his bank account to reopen his three-person business after flooding from the superstorm. Restaurant owner Marilyn Schlossbach of Asbury Park said she’s gotten the runaround but just one grant from the state, even though she applied as soon as she could and hired an accountant to help her with the paperwork for her four restaurants.

Both Akerman and Schlossbach have applied for the maximum $50,000 available through the Stronger NJ Business grant program.

The question and answer portion of the town hall brought stories from flooded homeowners still mired in bureaucratic red tape.

One, Therese Daidone, who bought a home on the bay in Brick Township a year before the storm, told Christie she continues to rent housing while paying a mortgage on what is left of her primary home. She said she is on the waiting list for a homeowner rebuilding grant.

Christie said she was wait-listed because there were more applicants for the program than the first-round allocation could accommodate. He told her “the overwhelming likelihood” is that she would be taken care of in the second round of federal funding of $1.4 billion, expected around the end of next month.

Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty said concerns have been raised about the administration’s plan to reserve a quarter of business grant allocations in the second round for companies located in areas that the mega-storm did not reach.

Christie’s past few town halls have been disrupted by protesters, but the handful of dissenters at Tuesday’s event remained outside.

Christie, 51, who is considered a likely candidate for president in 2016, has been hampered by a political payback scandal orchestrated by his aides. Federal authorities are investigating the plot to create traffic jams in Fort Lee, apparently to punish a local Democrat. Christie maintains he did not know what his aides were up to.