- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

State officials brushed aside a new criticism of how federal aid has been doled out in response to Superstorm Sandy after a group of small business owners accused the New Jersey Economic Development Authority on Wednesday of being too slow to distribute grants that can keep damaged businesses afloat.

The business owners, on a conference call with reporters organized by the advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, said the state has given out too little of the $100 million available in the Stronger NJ program. As of Wednesday, the state said it had awarded $13.6 million to 281 small businesses.

The government watchdog group called on the state to make awards by May 1 so businesses - many of them at the shore - can prepare accordingly for the summer tourism season.

Other post-Sandy programs, including the one for grants to repair or rebuild damaged homes, have been loudly criticized. But until now, there had not been much public fuss over this one.

Tim Lizura, the president of the EDA, said that demand shows the advocates do not understand the program, which he said is a last resort option for small businesses that sustained at least $5,000 in physical damage in the October 2012 storm and have suffered business losses.

He said that even after the state reallocated $160 million of the $260 million originally used to fund the program, there is enough to award grants to the eligible applicants, who can receive up to $50,000 each.

And he said that his employees and contractors together have enough staff to handle the applications and that under the federal rules for the money, the state has until May 2015 to disperse it.

He said a major obstacle has been that businesses have not provided all the documents they need to, though he also acknowledged that staffers may have “dropped the ball” on some of the 3,000 application files opened.

“You’ve got to meet us halfway,” Lizura said.

He said that some of the business owners who complained are among those who have incomplete paperwork.

One of them, Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of three restaurants in Asbury Park and one in Normandy Beach, said she submitted applications for grants last year, but then had trouble reaching anyone to help with follow-up questions. And when she did, she said she was told to resubmit the paperwork she had previously completed.

Schlossbach said the offseason has been a struggle for her businesses in communities that are still depopulated after the October 2012 storm - making a grant even more important.

“It’s not going to build me anything better,” she said. “It’s going to sustain me until the summer.”

But Lizura said Schlossbach has received one grant already.

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