Mayors Federation urges gov’t agencies to speed up disaster relief projects
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
With a new four-year term getting underway and a new central government executive cabinet appointed, Puerto Rico Mayors Federation President Ángel Pérez Otero said Wednesday that speeding up disaster recovery projects is the organization’s priority.
During a meeting of New Progressive Party (NPP) mayors at the Cataño Convention Center, the Guaynabo mayor told the STAR that as various municipal governments depend on 40% to 60% of equalization funds to keep the towns running, some are on the verge of shutting down.
“If we don’t do something in a year or two, those funds are [going to be] eliminated and there will be municipalities that will not be able to cover either payroll or operations,” Pérez Otero said, adding that he will be meeting with Villalba Mayor Luis Javier Hernández, president of the Mayors Association, which groups Popular Democratic Party (PDP) mayors; Deputy Secretary for Municipal Affairs Javier Carrasquillo; and Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia as early as next week to address such concerns.
“We must attend to fiscal affairs as it concerns every mayor,” Pérez Otero said.
As for the biggest issues that municipalities currently face, such as road recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic and after the damages wrought by Hurricane Maria, Pérez Otero said Transportation and Public Works Secretary Eileen Vélez committed to organizing regional meetings where mayors under both the NPP and PDP banners can communicate their towns’ priorities, needs and future projects that are to be funded with federal disaster relief aid.
As for issues to discuss with island Housing Secretary William Rodríguez, the Mayors Federation president named two that have priority among others: the effective management of funds from the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) program, and the mayors’ calls “to eliminate bureaucracy” in funding processes.
“Something I must take up with the Housing secretary is that the federal government imposes three requirements: A, B and C, which you must fulfill to be able to use funds. Meanwhile, the state government has said: ‘Yes, you fulfilled requirements A, B and C, but you must also fulfill D, E, F and G,’” Pérez Otero said. “Why, if the federal government only tells me to fulfill three requirements to get the funds and begin the projects?”
“I’m not against establishing controls in order to use funds correctly, but you can’t reach a level that stops processes and detains projects,” the Guaynabo mayor added. “The governor wants to get rid of all bureaucracy and help municipalities get all those funds, but both the governor and the Housing secretary play a key role here.”
Therefore, Pérez Otero said, he is hopeful that the Housing Department will be able to let municipalities receive both CDBG and CDBG-DR funds to begin demolition and reconstruction projects.
Rodríguez, meanwhile, said he will be evaluating every project under CDBG and meeting with every municipal officer “to discuss what’s strictly necessary.”
“Sometimes, it is not the process, it is a detail that is not included with what should happen, as sometimes documents come and go, come back, go up and down, and we’re analyzing how this information flow is affecting what’s being authorized and, therefore, how to eliminate what’s unnecessary,” the Housing secretary said. “That’s both the governor’s commitment and mine.”
When a member of the press asked how much funding has been allocated to municipalities to begin disaster relief projects, Rodríguez said $200 million out of $1.5 billion that was disbursed has been used.
However, the Housing chief said that out of the $1.5 billion, $1.3 billion is obligated.
“The obligated amount is allocated to construction projects, which take from 12 to 24 months depending on the project’s reach,” Rodríguez said. “That money will start moving from now on.”
Pérez Otero, meanwhile, told members of the press that during the meeting mayors voted on new board members for both the Mayors Federation and the Municipal Revenue Collections Center (CRIM by its Spanish acronym).
The elected members of the Mayors Federation board consist of Camuy Mayor Gabriel Hernández, Las Piedras Mayor Miguel López and Vega Alta Mayor María Vega as vice presidents, Gurabo Mayor Rosachely Rivera Santana as secretary, Utuado Mayor Jorge Pérez as treasurer, and Pérez Otero as chairman.
Meanwhile, the CRIM board members from the Mayors Federation are Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera, Cataño Mayor Félix Delgado, Canóvanas Mayor Lornna Soto, Aibonito Mayor William Alicea and Orocovis Mayor Jesús Colón.