Brookdale Fire Victims Remembered as Quiet, Friendly

Community stunned by death of five Friday in three-alarm fire.

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By Lia Eustachewich and James Kleimann

July 22, 2012

Newark Patch

Residents in Newark’s West Ward are still reeling from the fast-moving blaze on Brookdale Avenue that killed five people, including three children, early Friday morning.

Red balloons reading “I love you” and “Happy birthday” and two teddy bears dangled from yellow police tape roping off the gutted homes on Brookdale Avenue, where a fire began inside a vacant home shortly after 1:30 a.m. Friday quickly and ripped through several homes. Tiny girls’ shoes and a tattered children’s book were scattered on the sidewalk’s broken concrete.

Authorities have identified the dead as siblings Javena and Javens Joseph, ages 2 and 3, respectively, and Angela Williams, 5, Nazir Blackstone, 17 and Shelton Freeman, 44. Smoke inhalation is the preliminary cause of death for all five, who were found on the third floor of 33 Brookdale Ave.

Neighbors, some of whom stopped Sunday morning to stare at the scorched home, recalled the dead as being from quiet families that kept to themselves.

“We spoke on occasion. They were nice people. They didn’t deserve this,” said Vanessa McAdams, who lives a few doors down.

The vacant home at 31 Brookdale Ave., where the fire began, was demolished later that day, but the eerie skeleton of the death house still remains. Drivers slowly rode past the charred building and blackened rubble Sunday morning, mouths agape at the grisly scene that still smelled of smoke.

Blackstone, Freeman and Williams were found in the same front apartment, officials have said, but their relationship to one another is not yet clear. The mother of the children was reported to have been in the hospital delivering a baby when the fire ripped through her home. She and the parents of the Joseph children have not been identified.

The Joseph family, a quiet clan that recently moved to the area, neighbors said, lived in the rear apartment.

Residents said two other children from the Joseph family were rescued by a man they called the Brookdale Hero who didn’t hesitate before running into the burning building.

“He said he wished he could have grabbed them all,” said an emotional neighbor, who did not want to be identified. “The children were screaming ‘Mommy, daddy please help us!’ Then, the screaming stopped.”

She said the Brookdale Hero, who wishes to remain anonymous according to several neighbors, was unable to rescue Javena and Javens because of the intense heat.

“He rushed in to save people he didn’t even know,” said a woman who went by the name Tanya. “You know God sent him there … He saved them.”

Kenisha Bascuine said she used to hang with Blackstone on the front steps of the home and remembered him as a good kid who would help his mother do laundry on South Orange Avenue.

“He was cool, quiet. He never got into trouble,” said Bascuine, who lives on Brookdale Avenue.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, officials said Sunday. Several Newark firefighters appeared to be examining the burned structure and the foundation of the since-torn-down vacant home before leaving around noon.

Officials said the vacant home was properly secured before the fire broke out and had no open code violations. But multiple residents on the block said the building was a well-known drug haven frequented by squatters.

West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice vowed Friday to beef up the vacant residence with the city.

“By the end of next week this will be a forgotten story,” said McAdams. “But we won’t forget.”

Nude Photos of Ridgewood High Girls Prompt Police Investigation

Police have called for an amnesty period to allow students to delete the images without fear of prosecution.

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By James Kleimann

March 14, 2013

Ridgewood Patch

Police are investigating claims a number of female Ridgewood High School students sent nude photos of themselves to at least one male student, only to find the images posted on the Internet.

Several parents and students told Patch Wednesday that at least three Ridgewood High School girls sent the nude photos using the “Snapchat” application, which destroys photos between 2 and 10 seconds after they’re received.

An unidentified male student, expecting the images, took screenshots of the illicit photos and posted an Instagram gallery, multiple people familiar with the situation told Patch.

Ridgewood school administrators became aware of the incidents on Friday and initiated a joint investigation with Ridgewood police. Ridgewood Superintendent Dan Fishbein sent a notice warning parents of the potential dangers.

“These incidents happened off school grounds and are being handled by the police,” Fishbein told Patch Wednesday afternoon. “If it is determined that students broke school rules then we would handle that administratively as we do with all student issues.”

In a letter sent to parents on Wednesday, Fishbein said police have called for an “amnesty period” for those found to have created, transmitted or possessed any illicit images or movies.

Police did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Students who have the images must delete them before the amnesty period ends at 7:00 a.m. on Monday or face possible prosecution for possessing/distributing child pornography, officials said.

“Please be assured that I will always take every appropriate action to protect the safety and well being of our students,” Fishbein said in the letter. “The amnesty period gives you an opportunity to educate your children and help protect them. We will be working with our staff to continue to address these issues with our students. Thank you for your assistance with this serious issue.”

Ryan Lanza, Wrongly Named As Mass Murderer, Left To Grieve

Hoboken man learns his brother killed 27 people, including their mother.

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By Claire Moses and James Kleimann

January 24, 2013

Hoboken Patch

Ryan Lanza was at his job in Manhattan on Friday when news outlets began to report that he had massacred 20 school children in a sleepy Connecticut town.

The reports said Lanza, a 24-year-old Quinnipiac University graduate, had murdered someone in his Hoboken apartment and then drove to Newtown, Conn., where he used a .223 caliber rifle and two other guns to kill 27 people before turning the gun on himself.

The dead included his mother, Nancy.

Lanza’s thoughts quickly went to his developmentally disabled younger brother, Adam, whom he began to fear may have been responsible for the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School, friends said.

As media reports continued to name Ryan Lanza as the shooter and plastered his face across the world, he took to Facebook and told friends he was not the man responsible for the brutal slaying.

“Oh my god, I think my mother is dead,” he wrote, a friend told Patch.

Ryan Lanza and his roommate were being questioned Friday night at Hoboken Police headquarters. Neither have been charged with any crime, Hoboken Police Captain Jim Fitzsimmons said.

“Ryan is in shock,” a close friend, Brett Wilshe, told Patch.

Lanza works in the city at a financial company, Ernst & Young, and lives in a five-story brick building on Grand Street known as “The Metropolitan.”

Media outlets quickly scrambled to “The Metropolitan,” where Hoboken police gathered with FBI agents. Initial reports said that someone was killed at the apartment and that Lanza’s girlfriend was missing. As curiosity grew from onlookers and media members, police draped yellow police tape around the perimeter, closing both sides of Grand Street just after 2:30 p.m.

No bodies were found inside the building, Fitzsimmons said.

Lanza was planning to head to Connecticut after hearing about the shooting, friends told Patch.

Those who know the Hobokenite, described as “nice” and committed to his friends, were also shocked by the news.

“At first you’re devastated that 30 people were shot to death,” friend Katie Colaneri told Patch. “And then you find out it’s someone that you know, that you’ve met, that you’ve hugged. And you don’t know whether to feel angry or sad. You find out your friend is alive but caught up in this mess. It’s incredible.”

“He’s not a guy capable of shooting up a school,” another friend of Ryan’s told Patch Friday afternoon.

Patch Local Editor Paul Milo contributed to this story.

New Jerseyans Surrendering Guns At Record Pace

Nearly 10,000 guns have been turned in across the state since the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Authorities say the massacre prompted residents to rid their homes of guns.

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By James Kleimann, Noah Cohen and Paul Milo

April 8, 2013

Ridgewood Patch

The doors of two Camden churches swung open shortly after daybreak on Dec. 14, with law enforcement officials inside hoping a two-day cash-for-guns program might help put a dent in the crime rate in one of America’s most violent cities.

But just 90 minutes after people began to trickle into the churches, a troubled 20-year-old named Adam Lanza shot his way into an elementary school in a small Connecticut town as idyllic as Camden is gritty.

As the scope of the school massacre came into focus that afternoon – 20 children and six adults lie dead – the trickle of people with guns to surrender grew into a stream and, by the following morning, a torrent.

Officials collected 1,137 firearms during those two days in Camden, the most successful gun buyback in state history, including 762 the day after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

And the trend has continued, with buybacks held in Essex and Mercer counties collecting thousands more guns than were turned in during previous programs, and easily besting the number collected in Camden.

In total, New Jersey residents have surrendered nearly 10,000 weapons since the Sandy Hook shooting thrust gun control back to the forefront of the American conversation.

“One of the things we were hearing in Newark was that a lot of people just didn’t want the gun in the home anymore,” Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio said. “What people saw was that if the weapon gets in the wrong hands it could cause destruction like we saw in Newtown.”

The state has spent more than $1.2 million on the six buybacks held since December.

Record hauls across state

The last Essex County gun buyback, in 2009, yielded about 700 firearms, making it the most successful program of its kind in county history. But in February, 1,770 guns were turned in during a post-Newtown buyback held in Montclair and Newark, Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said.

Among the guns: an AR-15 similar to the Bushmaster rifle used by Lanza in the Connecticut killings.

“I think [Newtown] was an eye-opener for most people and I think that’s when they made the decision, ‘let me get this gun out of my house so it doesn’t fall into some relative’s hands and it could be used in that manner,” Newark Police Chief Sheilah Coley said.

A buyback in Trenton, held in January, netted 2,604 weapons in two days, including an anti-tank rocket launcher. Just 204 weapons were turned in last May during a buyback in New Jersey’s capital.

The buyback programs, devised to reduce violence in the inner cities, are even spreading to suburban and rural areas of the state. Authorities collected 600 guns last month at a buyback in Morris County. The results of a buyback held this past weekend in Somerset County were not immediately available.

“The snowball continued because we had some of our less urban populations sponsoring buybacks, including Morris County, where the Attorney General’s office contributed $20,000,” said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office.

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino is hosting the county’s second-ever gun buyback this coming weekend. The sheriff’s office was moved to hold the buyback after requests for action poured in following the Newtown shooting, spokesman Richard Moriarty said.

“One of the strongest requests came from Garfield. They said, ‘We’re serious about it.’ Other towns started coming on board and it just grew and grew,” Moriarty said.

In 2010, the county’s first buyback netted about 700 weapons.

Gun sales, permits soar

Carole Stiller, president of the pro-gun control group New Jersey Million Mom March Chapters, said that while the Newtown shooting may have helped buoy the success of New Jersey’s buybacks, gun sales are also high.

“I don’t know who buys the guns but it sounds like a lot of people who already have guns are just buying more,” said Stiller.

Permit applications are also up. The police chief in Bloomingdale told town officials last month that gun permit applications have soared in the small Passaic County town since the Newtown shooting.

And though Newtown has sparked debate about gun laws and a flurry of proposed legislation has followed in New Jersey, Stiller said near-daily violence continues to plague urban areas.

“It’s not all about Newtown,” she said, “Things are happening every day. [But] if a gun gets turned in that would have been picked up by somebody in Camden or Trenton, I think it’s helpful.”

The state Assembly in February approved a slew of gun control measures, including legislation that would limit ammunition capacity of magazines to 10 bullets from 15, require safety training, and mandate background checks for private gun sales. The bills are awaiting a committee in the state senate.

Effectiveness of buybacks debated

Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that there is little evidence to show the buybacks reduce violent crime. Instead, Melekian pointed to community-based programs that help mediate gang disputes before they turn into shootings.

A study in 1999 by criminologist Larry Sherman concluded – based on other studies – that gun buybacks don’t lead to lower crime rates, said Andrew Karmen, professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“I do think it has some value,” Karmen said of gun buybacks. “But the amount of guns brought back are unsubstantial or even pathetic when you compare them to the amount of new guns sold at the same time. One group is disarming, the other is arming in a heavy, rapid manner.”

The buybacks can be made more effective with increased publicity and using neutral locations, such as churches.

“The net change is there are more firearms around in society. If the aim is to get it out of certain families, who feel vulnerable and desperate for money, it can work,” he said. “But we’re deluding ourselves if we think buying up unwanted guns solves the problem. We should do it, but it’s far from the solution.”

More than 700 guns were turned in at the Union Baptist Church in Montclair during the Essex County buyback in February, the most of any of five locations where weapons could be surrendered. The four other sites hauled in a total of 1,054 weapons.

“Any weapon you get off the street that could fall into the wrong hands is a positive thing,” Montclair Deputy Police Chief Todd Conforti said in February. “We got a number of weapons we are going to destroy, and that is a success for me.”

Jessica Henry, an associate professor in Montclair State University’s Department of Justice Studies, said in February that the effectiveness of the gun buyback program should be self-evident.

“The reality is that this particular buyback got 1,770 guns off the street,” Henry said. “Every time we remove a gun from the streets or from someone’s home, we are reducing the likelihood that another act of gun violence occurs.”

Shortly after the buyback, authorities displayed the weapons on a conference table at Newark’s emergency services operations center. The guns included 70 that were illegal to own. At least six had been stolen, and one had been used in a Newark shooting, said DeMaio, the director of the Newark Police Department.

The buyback held in Morris County last month – during a snowstorm – netted 600 weapons, including 15 illegal assault weapons. Residents turned in 91 semi-automatic guns, 192 revolvers and 251 rifles or shotguns.

A buyback in Monmouth County took in 1,581 guns, including 45 assault rifles, authorities said.

“All of the weapons are checked to see if they are loaded,” Acting Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp said. “Once they’re determined to be in safe condition, they’re brought into the facility and catalogued.”

Authorities then determine whether the guns were used in a crime. Those shown to be involved in a crime are entered into evidence; the others are melted down.

Ridgewood Police Manpower at Lowest Level in Decades

Though departmental costs are increasing, attrition has brought the force down to fewer than 40 sworn officers. And it looks likely the decline will continue without a hiring spree in the next two years.

Photo credit: James Kleimann/Patch

Photo credit: James Kleimann/Patch

By James Kleimann

June 17, 2013

Ridgewood Patch

The promotion of two officers will help the Ridgewood Police Department plug holes to its supervisory structure, but the benefits of two additional hires will be non-existent in 2013. And unless the town acts – and soon – the staffing levels are likely to dwindle even further, leading to questions on the quality of service residents might receive.

Through attrition, manpower over the last decade has fallen to the current 39 sworn officers and 4 civilians. It’s a stark contrast to manpower in recent decades – in 1990, Ridgewood fielded 48 police officers and 8 civilians; staffing hovered around 47 officers with a handful of civilians until the early-to-mid 2000s before it precipitously began slipping as call volumes rose.

Officers told Patch the impact of depleted manpower is already emerging, with detective case-loads piling up and overtime on the rise. The department handles about 30,000 calls for service a year.

While two officers have recently moved up the ladder to sergeant and lieutenant, there are no immediate replacements available for two now-vacant patrol positions.

“It isn’t quite bringing us back to whole but hopefully the promotions will eliminate the gap with patrol supervision,” Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward told Patch in an interview.

“Unfortunately, as we move along, we’re talking roughly six months worth of police academy training and three months of field training,” he said of the two new hires, Anthony Dinice and Christopher Mormino. “So we won’t actually see them as individual solo officers on patrol until the beginning of 2014 or later.”

(Dinice was injured and will have to re-enter the police academy at a later date.)

Ward maintains a force of 46 or 47 officers would allow the department to “make a significant impact” on overtime while ramping up community policing initiatives he’s touted since being sworn in as chief three years ago. A minimum of 43 officers – recommended in an independent accreditation review of the department in 2008 – is a figure he could live with, he told Patch.

But if the village doesn’t hire at least four additional officers by early 2015 that goal is unlikely to be reached, the numbers suggest.

More departures expected

Multiple officers said between five and eight veteran cops are expected to retire before the current police contract expires in December of 2015, which would allow them to preserve benefits afforded to them in the current contract.

“If we drop even lower, we’ll basically become a department that only responds to calls,” one officer told Patch. “Some things won’t be investigated, some things will just take a long time to get to – there won’t be enough people to go around.”

Another officer said the detective’s squad would be a shell of its current self and the traffic enforcement initiatives would likely be crunched in between calls, telling Patch that the department is “already at a tipping point.”

“The level of service won’t be up to what people expect in Ridgewood, that’s for sure,” the officer said.

Though he said the Ridgewood Police Department would continue to provide patrol and emergency response service at a high level, Ward didn’t dispute the officer’s comments either.

“If we experience a seven-to-eight man exodus at one time without addressing that, you’re going to have a 20 percent reduction in an already understaffed department,” the chief remarked. “There’s no way around it – it’s going to affect us significantly.”

By law, the department is mandated to have four officers patrolling the 5.7 miles of Ridgewood, with at least one supervisor on duty. With vacations, sick day call-outs, injuries, and mandated furlough time (two days a year), officers need to be called in to cover shifts.

The department got an early glimpse at a force numbering in the low 30s when a stomach bug flew through the department in April. Eight police officers took days off and overtime soared as a result, police said.

Manpower declining, departmental costs rising

Yet despite reduced staff, the department’s budget remains a growing challenge. Renegotiated in late 2010, officers are receiving annual raises of around 4 percent per year. From 2010-2014, police receive an aggregate 4.24 increase in salary. The number will drop to a 2.5 percent increase in 2015, the final year of the contract.

In fact, most officers make north of $100,000, with benefit packages tacking on tens of thousands more.

Starting salaries for new officers have been lowered to $32,000 (from about $42,000), a move officials at the time said would save Ridgewood millions over the long haul. The immediate savings were predicated upon the notion the village would realize “breakage” savings from the cost of older officers being replaced by cheaper rookies in the current contract.

Here’s the rub – since being renegotiated, few officers have left the department, and even fewer have been hired while the top salary ranges remain high.

The village hasn’t had new officers patrol the streets since John Ward Jr. and Steven Cummings were sworn in August of 2011.

Village Manager Ken Gabbert in late 2010 said the goal was to hire three-to-four officers. That never materialized, and some officers have told Patch it remains a sore point.

Officers now pay more into health care and step increases have widened, in addition to officers now being required to provide two furlough days. But the total givebacks don’t close the overall cost gap – the department’s salary and wages are indisputably growing.

With built-in increases from the police contract, the department’s $6.13 million in appropriations grew $230,000 from 2012. It grew $356,000 the year prior. Comp time will further cost the town a budgeted $1.48 million in 2013.

Restructuring divisions

Ward maintains he and Cpt. Jacqueline Luthcke have worked fervently to address staffing issues, employing creative means to ensure coverage in town. Both the captain and the chief also pitch in on patrol duties.

The traffic bureau was reconstituted in 2011 to focus on pedestrian and traffic issues in the densely-packed village. But when a patrol officer can’t make it, often one of the traffic division officers cover the shift. Some officers float between patrol, traffic and even the detective’s squad.

The flexibility has helped keep overtime costs down, Ward contends. The department was able to save nearly $200,000 on overtime costs through the arrangements in 2012, according to the chief.

The detective’s squad supervisor, Lt. Forest Lyons, also covers patrol shifts as a supervisor.

“I’d love to get a full-time supervisor at the bureau and in traffic,” Ward said. “Whether or not that’s going to be reality remains to be seen based on economics and the council.”

Mayor says public safety won’t be compromised

While the council is focused on reducing the tax burden on residents, it won’t come from reductions in public safety, Mayor Paul Aronsohn contends.

“This is an issue the council will be engaged in,” he said. “We recognize that public safety is our number one priority and getting that right is our number one goal. That means having the right staffing level and dedicating enough resources toward that.”

Aronsohn said additional officers could improve response time and cut overtime.

“My personal view is we probably need more folks,” he said.

Ward expressed confidence the administration, council and the police department can devise a way to beef up staffing. With nine months of academy time built in, it will likely need to hire multiple officers – by spring of 2015 at the latest.

“There are concerns but I’m hopeful the council, management and myself can all work together to find a resolution in a proactive way,” Ward said.

Christie Faces Criticism For Police Helicopter Ride To Son’s Ballgame

State police defend use of helicopter, say flight hours would have been logged on new craft anyway for training purposes.

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By Tom Troncone, James Kleimann, Giovanna Fabiano and Noah Cohen

June 1, 2011

Ridgewood Patch

Against a backdrop of school budget cuts and state layoffs, Gov. Chris Christie faced mounting criticism Wednesday for travel to his son’s baseball game in Bergen County.

Christie landed on a sports field at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale in the $12 million chopper Tuesday afternoon, minutes before his son was about to take the field as the catcher for the Delbarton School in their playoff game against St. Joe’s. He and his wife, Mary Pat, left in the helicopter after the 5th inning.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) blasted Christie, saying she “fully expects” the governor to reimburse the state of New Jersey for the cost of the ride.

“If this was for an official reason, that would have been one thing, but he used a state helicopter to fly to his child’s baseball game,” Weinberg said. “I have a real problem with this as a taxpayer and I fully expect that he will reimburse the state of New Jersey for the cost of this ride, which I’m assuming runs into the thousands of dollars,” she said.

Weinberg said politicians should use their own vehicles and pay for their own gas while on personal trips.

“I’ve gone in my lifetime to plenty of school games, dance recitals, you name it, and like any other parent or grandparent, I sat in traffic and I paid for it myself,” Weinberg said, adding that she sat in traffic for four hours last week on her way to Vineland for a hearing. She paid her own gas and tolls, she said.

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, (D-Englewood) said he questioned Christie’s judgment.

“I understand there are family events you might want to get to, but to use a helicopter, which is extremely expensive to fly, when it comes to fuel and labor costs, is just not appropriate,” Johnson said.

Republican officials, however, remained tightlipped about whether they thought the trip to Bergen County was an appropriate use of the aircraft.

The governor’s office has not spoken at length about the helicopter ride, issuing a statement that read simply, “It is a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands. This has historically been the case in prior administrations as well, and we continue to be judicious in limiting its use.”

A Christie spokesman did not respond to an email asking for additional comment.

In defending the governor’s trip, State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said the flight hours would have been accumulated anyway on the aircraft, as pilots become accustomed to the new helicopters. The state police oversees security for the governor.

“Governor Christie is on duty every hour of every day,” Fuentes said in a release. “His transportation, safety and security are my responsibility, and he therefore travels with the State Police Executive Protection Unit, whether on state or personal business.  As part of our long-standing security protocol, the EPU provides secure, protected travel by vehicle in the overwhelming majority of the Governor’s business and personal travel, except in those rare instances when the Governor’s schedule warrants use of air travel.

“To date, Governor Christie has been aboard State Police helicopters 35 times since taking office, including aerial surveys of flood and storm damage. It is important to understand that State Police helicopters fly daily homeland security missions, and use flight time for training purposes, more so lately as we acclimate our pilots to the new aircraft. These are flight hours that would be logged in any event. Therefore, there is no additional cost to taxpayers or the State Police budget, nor is there any interference with our daily mission by adding the state’s chief executive to any of these trips. Any flights transporting the Governor would be subordinated to priority needs for our aircraft including rescue and emergent law enforcement missions.”

Jeff Tittel, the president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, estimated that the helicopter used by Christie averages between 2.25 to 2.5 miles per gallon, compared to a large SUV that gets 16 miles per gallon on a highway.

“There is a bigger environmental impact from using a helicopter. Anyone who says otherwise is just spinning it,” Tittel said, who added that he’s not against using helicopters for official business, but criticized the use for personal flights.

“God help us if there was ever an emergency when the helicopter is in use by the governor to take him to his son’s baseball game,” U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) said in remarks Wednesday to a rally of state union workers in Newark’s Military Park.

Patch users debated the issue with fervor on Tuesday and Wednesday. By noon Wednesday, comments were about 3-to-1 in favor of people who said they felt that Christie had abused his access to the state police helicopter. Some pointed to his son’s enrollment in a private high school, while at the same time he battles with the state teachers’ union. Still others questioned the use of the helicopter to return Christie from the game to the Governor’s Mansion in Princeton, where he met with an Iowa group that is trying to pursuade him to run for president.

A minority of commenters, however, said that Christie’s use of the helicopter was acceptable. They contrasted Christie’s one-time personal use with Air Force One shuttling President Obama around the country for vacation, though federal law requires the president to travel via Air Force One or its helicopter cousin, Marine One.

For a governor who many would classify as divisive and unapologetic, the discussion mirrored the man.

Clerical Error Kept Bergen from Snowstorm Disaster Aid, Officials Say

Congressmen Rothman, Pascrell call on FEMA to expand disaster declaration.

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By James Kleimann and Noah Cohen

December 1, 2011

Ridgewood Patch

A paperwork snafu prevented Bergen County from being included in Wednesday’s Presidential disaster declaration designed to give federal aid to areas hard hit by the October snowstorm, county officials confirmed.

In a letter to President Barack Obama last month, Gov. Chris Christie requested federal aid for eleven counties, including Bergen. The governor pointed to widespread power outages. When the president’s declaration came, however, Bergen, Passaic and Middlesex were left out.

“It appears that a clerical error prevented the declaration for Bergen,” said Jeanne Baratta, Chief of Staff to County Executive Kathleen Donovan.

According to regulations published in early October, FEMA has a threshold of $3.39 in damages that each resident of a county must incur in order for the county to qualify for federal disaster relief. For Bergen County, with a population of some 900,000, that would amount to approximately $3 million. County emergency management director Lt. Dwane Razzetti said a FEMA report put the cost of the storm at $5.6 million, well above the threshold; however, the state reported Bergen’s damages much lower, at $1.2 million.

“We were pretty sure we were over the threshold,” Razzetti said. He said he was “shocked” when he found out the numbers the state sent to the federal government did not match the figures from the FEMA report.

Officials could not pinpoint an exact breakdown in the process, but said they would push for a declaration.

“Right now they don’t believe we have to appeal this because the error was clerical on the part of the NJ OEM [New Jersey Office of Emergency Management],” Baratta said.

Middlesex and Passaic missed out on the aid because they too did not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “per-capita damage” cost threshold, state and federal officials said. Passaic reported $1.5 million in damages, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management. That would be less than the FEMA threshold of approximately $1.7 million for a county of 500,000 residents.

Goepfert said there was no clerical error, but the state was working with the three counties.

“We are going to evaluate their data and determine if additional documentation exists which would support an appeal and a Declaration,” she said in a follow up e-mail Thursday.

Congressman Steve Rothman said it’s not the first time Bergen and Passaic were left out by FEMA. Not too long ago the Fair Lawn congressman had to fight to get Bergen and Passaic qualified for federal money after Hurricane Irene, he said.

Rothman and Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-8) wrote to FEMA chief William Craig Fugate Thursday urging him to add the two North Jersey counties to the declaration.

“In Bergen County five people lost their lives to house fires and vehicle fires directly related to this last storm. So I believe very strongly on the merits FEMA should now include Bergen and Passaic counties in its disaster declaration just as they added our two counties after their initial assessments after Hurricane Irene,” Rothman said in an interview Thursday.

In the letter to Fugate, Rothman and Pascrell said they were “extremely concerned” that Bergen and Passaic were not included in the first declaration.

“Living in Bergen County and living less than a half mile from Passaic County, I can say the damage was severe,” Rothman said.

Updated 10 a.m. Friday with a follow up comment from the New Jersey OEM.