LITTLE FALLS - Problems with a FEMA house lifting project has left four Little Falls families in limbo. Work on their homes is nowhere near complete even though the vast majority of grant money has been spent. A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds township officials, responsible for acting in the homeowners' best interest, failed to enforce safeguards designed to protect them.
"It was supposed to be four months and I'm going on nine," says Yvette Reyes, one of the affected homeowners. She says she has no idea when she and her family will be able to move back in their home because "there's no money; the contractor's filing bankruptcy."
In January, Little Falls agreed to release virtually all the grant money earmarked for the four homes, after its building department certified that work was over 90 percent complete. In Reyes' case, the township released over $149,000, leaving just $9,000 for remaining work. Reyes estimates it will take at least $50,000 to complete the project.
In what appears to one of the more egregious examples of overpayment, Little Falls certified that Reyes' plumbing was 95 percent complete, with just $388 worth of work remaining. In fact, the house has no running water, and the furnace, central air conditioning system and hot water heater all need to be installed. In addition, bathroom sinks and toilets are strewn in the backyard.
There are also questions about the quality of work that was performed. The Reyes' house was elevated onto hollow pillars and Reyes says town building inspectors first approved that, until she and her husband called their attention to it and insisted the pillars be filled with concrete as required by building code. Little Falls Administrator Charles Cuccia says he "can't recall" whether his building department or the Reyes family were the ones who noticed the hollow pillars.
The homeowners signed contracts with Little Falls designating the town to act on their behalf, and some say they think the town dropped the ball. Cuccia, however, insists the town did everything it could under FEMA rules, and could not have headed off the problems any sooner. "I don't think we would have been legally capable of doing it as long as the project was continuing," he says.
But Kane In Your Corner finds Little Falls ignored several safeguards intended to ensure the project would not run out of money before work was complete. For example, under the town's bidding rules, contractors were required to post performance bonds, but the town failed to collect them. Under questioning from News 12 New Jersey's Walt Kane, Cuccia admitted that "we certainly could have" and agreed that doing so would have been a "pretty obvious thing."
Cuccia says the township is now trying to act aggressively to help its residents, and is willing to hire a contractor at its own expense to finish the job. Toward that end, he says, town officials conducted walk-throughs of the four properties late last week. But some of the homeowners say that after nine months of waiting, they won't believe their ordeal is nearing an end until they actually see results.