Governor announces $100 million for towns

As part of coronavirus relief fund

By The Star Staff

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia announced Wednesday he will give island municipalities $100 million to deal with the emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic and agreed to help towns with their budgetary problems.

At a news conference in the Pedro Rosselló González Convention Center in Miramar, he said each of the 78 municipalities will receive $1 million. The remaining $22 million would be distributed among the towns with the greatest economic difficulties to ensure the provision of services and emergencies related to the pandemic. The funds to be distributed will come from the federal funds earmarked to Puerto Rico through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Pierluisi and the presidents of the Mayors Federation and the Mayors Association said following a meeting that they had agreed to work as a united front to convince the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board to stop demanding that municipalities contribute to the central government’s health care plan and to stop cutting towns’ budgets.

“That health care plan, known as Vital, is a state health care plan, not a municipal plan, and I am of the opinion that the central government should finance it using federal funds or its own income,” the governor said. “As soon as the federal government raises the amount of funds for the Vital plan before October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, [then] we know how much we will have, so cities do not have to continue to make those contributions.”

A law was approved in 2019 during the past administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares so that municipalities no longer had to make health insurance payments or pay their share of pensions, which instead were paid by the central government. Last year, however, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain invalidated that law, Act 29, as part of a challenge brought by the federal oversight board because it went against the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, generally known as PROMESA.

Pierluisi also said they will work to convince the oversight board to stop the $44 million annual reduction of funding to the Equalization Fund, a crucial source of revenue for island towns. Pierluisi in the fiscal year 2022 budget is already proposing to freeze the $44 million cut.

“It makes no sense to restructure the central government and not pay attention to cities, whose services complement those of the central government,” Pierluisi said.

The governor also said municipalities provide services that the central government provides too without compensation. Therefore, a three-member working group was created to identify ways certain services and competencies can be “municipalized” either by an agreement or a memorandum of mutual understanding. A report must be provided in 60 days.

Luis Javier Hernández, president of the Mayors Association, which groups Popular Democratic Party mayors, said he and Mayors Federation President Ángel Pérez have already informed the oversight board of their plans because “we don’t want a repeat of Act 29.” He said the towns will use the $100 million surplus to ensure funds for services to curb COVID-19 will be well spent.

Pérez said the $100 million will allow towns to have extra funding to pay for other services. He insisted that the transfers from the central government’s General Fund to the municipalities are not charity because municipalities are providing essential services to citizens.

Pierluisi also announced that an executive order requiring the resumption of face-to-face classes in private and public schools is imminent as he insisted he will move forward with plans to reopen schools despite concerns that the schools are not ready. He said only schools in suitable condition will reopen.

“The details of which schools are going to open and the protocol and requirements to be met is what has not yet been announced,” the governor said. “As for an executive order authorizing this to happen, the order is imminent. At any time an order will be issued authorizing the Department of Education as well as the private education system to proceed to open schools, subject to a series of terms and conditions, including compliance with the protocols established by the Department of Health.”

In addition, he stressed that the government’s objective is to begin with the reopening of schools on March 1.

Pierluisi also said he hopes lawmakers give designated Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos the opportunity to express herself in public hearings. He declined to comment on appointments to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

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