Mayors air budget concerns in meeting with fiscal board members
By John McPhaul
A group of 10 mayors who were selected by the Financial Oversight and Management Board to work on the municipal budgets met with officials from the oversight board earlier this week to discuss the imposition of the budgets devised by the board, which the island’s mayors complain are unrealistic and would cause layoffs of municipal workers and cuts in services to citizens.
Despite the expectations of the mayors, neither the oversight board president, José Carrión III, nor its executive director, Natalie Jaresko, were present at the Tuesday afternoon meeting.
The meeting was attended by the first vice president of the Puerto Rico Mayors Association, Luis Javier Hernández, who is the mayor of Villalba and also an attorney; New Progressive Party mayors Jesús Colón Berlingeri of Orocovis, Gabriel Hernández Rodríguez of Camuy and Elliot Colón Blanco of Barranquitas; and, participating remotely, Popular Democratic Party mayors Heriberto Vélez of Quebradillas and Josean Santiago of Comerío, a former president of the Mayors Association, the mayors said Wednesday in a written statement.
“The mayors met last week in Villalba to reach an agreement and we requested this meeting from the Board. We have suggested that the pilot budget plan presented by the fiscal entity is very far from what was promised last year,” Hernández said following the meeting held at the oversight board’s offices in the Seaborne building in Hato Rey. “We did not have technical assistance from them to prepare budgets, nor did we have economic development options.
After we have already worked on the budgets for this fiscal year 2020-2021, which started on July 1, and three months after the elections, the board intends to impose its numbers so that the municipalities have to readjust.”
Colón Berlingeri told the media that “we let them know that there are some inconsistencies with the numbers.”
“The figures presented by the Municipal Revenue Collections Center are based on clear, documented facts,” the Orocovis mayor said. “As for the numbers presented by the Board, we do not know where they are from. The budget has already started and this has to be worked on.”
Hernández added that “unlike the central government, we municipalities are up to date with our debts, one year in advance, and they are treating us differently.”
“Our request is that the intention of the Board be postponed, that they reconsider because this is being carried out in a hasty way,” he said. “The situation is aggravated by the elimination of Law 29, [as well as] the management of the pandemic. We are municipalities with an operational surplus and we have achieved this with discipline and good administration.”
Meanwhile, Hernández Rodríguez, the mayor of Camuy, pointed out that Carrión has stated in the media to the effect that he would have liked to have better communication bridges with island legislative leaders, “and that is precisely what we are offering, dialogue, that this budgetary imposition be postponed.” “The sensible thing is to postpone it until after the elections and sit down [and discuss the matter] in more detail,” Hernández Rodríguez said.
The Barranquitas mayor agreed.
“What applies to us, 10 municipalities, will be imposed on the other 68 municipalities next year,” Colón Blanco said. “What we accept from the Board at this time will affect the entire country.”
Regarding additional details, Vélez, the mayor of Quebradillas, pointed to a particular example, which is the elimination of fringe benefits for municipal employees and even the elimination of the Christmas bonus.
“We have worked up a very detailed and responsible budget,” he said. “We are talking about employees who work for $7.25 an hour and we have arranged this bonus at the end of the year because we can afford it; we plan for that.”
One of the most dramatic cases is related to the Municipality of Comerío, where the plan imposed by the oversight board represents a cut of more than 40 percent, leaving it practically inoperative.
“A municipality where there are high rates of poverty, you cannot condemn yourself to more poverty by treating it like the others,” Hernández said. “There are some particularities that must be addressed in detail. The Board’s proposal even prohibits the transfer of items and that is something that is ordinarily done in the municipalities. For example, if we budget $50,000 for minor repairs in public schools and in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, where there are no classes, and we need those funds for equipment and sanitation materials, [under the oversight board’s proposal] we can’t use them. That is one of the concrete examples that we are presenting and that we cannot accept.”