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Taking on water Businesses struggling to stay afloat as Washington weighs Sandy aid

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The owners of Hans Pedersen & Sons are wary of applying for a loan to repair their shop. From left, Gary Pedersen, Wade Pedersen and Jean Orr. - AARON HOUSTON
The owners of Hans Pedersen & Sons are wary of applying for a loan to repair their shop. From left, Gary Pedersen, Wade Pedersen and Jean Orr. - AARON HOUSTON

Two months after Hurricane Sandy levied an existential threat to her business, Jean Orr is still searching for answers.

A boat still hangs half in and half out at Orr's shop building at Hans Pedersen & Sons Boat Yard, in Keyport, a visual reminder of the damage done by the storm. She has a contractor to do repairs and has already paid a deposit, but the work is on hold while she awaits a visit from her insurance company, as she wasn't covered for flooding.

"We didn't have flood insurance, because quite honestly, it was too expensive and we don't flood here," she said. "Ever."

Orr said she spoke to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which gave her a Small Business Administration loan application, but Orr is hesitant to go that route.

"I don't know where to turn for help, to tell you the truth," she said.

It's a tale of woe Laurie Ehlbeck, New Jersey state director at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said she's hearing regularly.

"Right now, some of them are so devastated that they're hoping for any type of help," she said.

Increasingly, New Jersey business groups are turning to Washington, D.C., to provide that help.

David Brogan, first vice president at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said his group is pushing for a spate of federal tax incentives to help businesses fund cleanups and replace expensive equipment.

Those proposals include increased expensing, so business owners can deduct property expenditures and cleanup costs; bonus depreciation, to let businesses see a higher first-year benefit when they replace equipment; tax credits for hiring workers affected by the storm; and extended net operating loss carry-backs, which would let business owners retroactively apply this year's losses to previous years' gains.

Brogan said many of those ideas came from Washington's response to Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. Businesses within the so-called Gulf Opportunity Zone were able to take advantage of these opportunities; "we have urged our congressional delegation to say New Jersey, as a whole, needs this to get back up and running," he said.

That help could be coming soon. On Dec. 13 a bipartisan group of House lawmakers proposed the Hurricane Sandy Tax Relief Act of 2012, a bill that includes many of proposals pitched by Brogan, as well as a number of measures aimed at individuals. The bill is sponsored by U.S. Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Bill Pascrell Jr., both Democrats, and Republicans Jon Runyan and Chris Smith.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie earlier this month announced a new online survey aimed at understanding the needs of businesses.

"Rebuilding our state after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy is the most important and pressing challenge before us," Christie said, in a press release.

The governor noted the SBA already has approved more than $54 million in loans to 8,300 residents and businesses following the storm. But loans may not be a sufficient answer for business owners, such as Orr.

"It's difficult to make ends meet, and I can't have another loan to pay," she said, adding she already pays about $75,000 per year in property taxes. "I just think a loan would hurt us so, I'm trying to stay away from that."

Brogan said Orr isn't alone. He said one of NJBIA's top goals is setting up a grant program for businesses; while no such money is available now, "the governor has requested money that can used for businesses from the (Barack) Obama administration."

Brogan said his group has talked with Christie and others about the best way to raise a grant fund, but he said Washington would be the best source, since federal money would be "much more substantial than we could ever raise in private donations."

Brogan said both the grant money and tax credit package could get tied up in the ongoing debate over the so-called fiscal cliff, but he hopes the tax credit bill is passed quickly, and that it applies to 2012 expenditures.

Ehlbeck said tax help would be more than welcome, but said most businesses are still thinking more about the short term at the moment.

"It's an important thing," she said. "But right now, it's not what's going to help our businesses make a decision to rebuild."

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com

On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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