Mayors urge distribution of Essential Services funds
By The Star Staff
Puerto Rico Mayors Association President Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz said in a press release that the “Meeting of Cities” event held over the weekend at the Hyatt Grand Reserve in Río Grande was “a successful one in terms of participation, with more than 500 attendees, including mayors, officials, department directors, specialists, cabinet secretaries and the executive director of the [Financial Oversight and Management] Board.”
“This weekend, we have generated a unique opportunity for associated municipalities -- municipal assembly members, mayors and career trust personnel -- to have first-hand information on the most important issues for managing municipal governance,” Hernández Ortiz said.
The event was dedicated to the former mayor of San Juan and former governor Sila Calderón.
“On Friday we worked on several topics, from reconstruction and housing, to security and federal funds,” he said. “The prevailing reality of the challenges of bureaucracy and inflation is already known, and the mayors continue to look for solutions. We agreed that it is necessary to review the costs approved several years ago and that it has been an obstacle to awarding tenders.”
On energy, Hernández Ortiz confirmed that LUMA Energy is signing collaborative agreements with several municipalities to address emergencies. LUMA President Juan Saca stated that the contracts for managing the pruning of trees and installing lights are being drafted in order for municipalities to assist LUMA in the process.
Participating in the energy panel were Saca and Iván Báez, vice president of public and government affairs of GeneraPR, and Rep. Jesús Hernández Arroyo, chairman of the Infrastructure Committee.
One of the most relevant topics was the Essential Services Fund and Municipal Economy, on which the oversight board’s executive director, Robert Mujica, and Hernández Ortiz led a discussion.
“What was evident during the meeting is that the [oversight] board, the legislators and the majority of the mayors present agreed on prioritizing the distribution of the current fund to those municipalities that will enter an operational fiscal crisis after the elimination of the Equalization Fund,” Hernández Ortiz said.
Attending the event were legislators Juan Zaragoza Gómez, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Jesús Santa Rodríguez, who pointed out that the Essential Services Fund should have at least $150 million to balance government income so that citizens of towns with fewer revenue earners also have access to services. To reach that number, legislators are interested in responsibly and fairly examining the tax on foreign companies, among other alternatives.
Hernández Ortiz, who is the mayor of Villalba, pointed out that the decentralization of services “is the unfinished agenda of the central government.”
“The decentralization of services is the future of modern governance,” he said. “The areas where the municipalities are already carrying out functions that correspond to the state are doing so in schools and roads, among other sectors. At the beginning of this four-year term, Governor Pedro Pierluisi signed a commitment with the mayors to apply the decentralization concept in an organized and effective manner. That is an unfinished agenda. Of course, we mayors will continue insisting on it, because it benefits the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico, without exception. That task will correspond to the government administration of the next four years.”
Hernández Ortiz was referring to the agreement signed on Feb. 17, 2021, at the Miramar Convention Center, where the presidents of the Mayors Association, which groups Popular Democratic Party mayors, and the Mayors Federation, which groups New Progressive Party mayors, joined with Pierluisi in signing collaborative agreements to help advance the development of the municipalities without imposing economic burdens that must be shouldered by the central government.
The agreements contemplate that the municipalities would not have to contribute money from their coffers to maintain the government health plan, known as Vital. They also include the transfer of state funds so that the municipalities take charge of responsibilities that correspond to the government, such as the maintenance of roads, issues related to sports and minor repairs in public schools, among others.