• The Star Staff

New gov’t looks to hasten business permitting process

By The Star Staff

Based on macroeconomic indicators, Puerto Rico’s economy was showing signs of growth over the past four years but all of that was shattered by the COVID-19 global pandemic, Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC) Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera said Tuesday.

“Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is here, I think next year the areas of tourism, small business and agriculture should start picking up,” he said.

Laboy, who is slated to become head of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience (COR3), said he will emphasize his efforts to move forward the disbursement of billions of dollars in federal reconstruction funds to help hasten the island’s economic recovery.

One of the areas that needs improvement to make Puerto Rico more business friendly is permitting, Laboy said.

Governor-elect Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia is proposing the creation of a “permitting czar” to resolve the problem of delays in obtaining business permits.

At the same time, the head of the incoming government’s transition committee, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera Cruz, proposed on Tuesday an alternative for solving the problem with the acquisition and renewal of business permits that would maintain the receipt of funds from various agencies.

Laboy stated in government transition hearings that in principle he supported the idea of the permits granted to a business being permanent. However, the island Health and Fire departments do not agree with that option.

Rivera Cruz proposed allowing new businesses to operate using a certificate stating that they comply with the law. If, upon inspection, it turns out that the business does not have the required number of exits or bathrooms, the agency can then close the business.

“We are clear -- so that people understand it -- that what is involved here is the income of each of the agencies,” Rivera Cruz said in the public hearings.

Regarding the renewal of business permits or licenses, Rivera Cruz said such permits should be renewed every three years or more instead of yearly. He said businesses should be allowed to send in the money to the specific agency so that the permit is renewed, instead of passing through a bureaucratic process of inspections.

“If the concern is that more money is not going to go to [the Fire Department], then we are going to do the following,” Rivera Cruz said. “That merchant or that businessman sends, on the day it is due, a notification or a certification that ‘I still have my fire extinguishers and I continue to comply with this and that,’ and then he can send a check for $25. And that’s it; it was covered this year and the merchant’s life was made easy and firefighters continue to receive the $25 and can at some point visit the merchant and verify that he is actually in order.”

“Do you think that at some point we can come to that?” Rivera Cruz asked Laboy.

“The answer is yes,” the DDEC secretary replied.

For his part, Gabriel Hernández Rodríguez, the assistant secretary of the General Permits Office, which is part of DDEC, argued that if the public policy of the governor-elect is aimed at that outcome, there is no objection on his part.

Laboy said that because of the pandemic, about 20 percent of the estimated 40,000 small businesses, or those that make $3 million in sales per year or less, are at risk of closing permanently.

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