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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

PDP says NPP is managing federal funds poorly

“Even though there is a lot of [federal] money, the reconstruction of the island has been extremely slow,” Popular Democratic Party President Jesús Manuel Ortiz González said. “What they have done so far is not enough.” (Photo by Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

Party president, lawmakers criticize the disaster recovery record of recent administrations

By Richard Gutiérrez

Apart from the global pandemic and the earthquakes in early 2020, Puerto Rico has had to deal with the recovery from the devastating effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria which were felt across the entire island.

The pandemic started three years ago and the hurricanes struck nearly six years ago, during which time and since, Puerto Rico has been under the administration of the New Progressive Party (NPP). Some would argue that in that time there has been proper use of federal funds brought into the island to resolve those issues, while others would argue that there hasn’t, and that many of the island’s issues since the hurricane have yet to be addressed.

The NPP’s rival party, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), most certainly thinks the latter. On Thursday, PDP President Jesús Manuel Ortiz González, joined at a press conference by several party legislators, charged that even though there have been billions of dollars in federal funds assigned to Puerto Rico for its recovery after hurricanes Irma and Maria, the earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic, the party believes the island’s reconstruction has been excessively slow.

“Since 2020, Puerto Rico has received a great number of precedents in terms of federal funds,” Ortiz González said at the press conference held at PDP headquarters in Puerta de Tierra. “Even though there is a lot of money, the reconstruction of the island has been extremely slow; what they have done so far is not enough.”

He went on to excoriate the NPP, stating that “during the 2020 governmental campaign, [now Gov.] Pedro Pierluisi and [Resident Commissioner] Jenniffer González boasted about billions of dollars in funds that the island and its administration would have access to during the four-year term, but what has the island and its current administration done in case another atmospheric event occurs? Nothing.”

“What is the current status of the billions of dollars in federal funds that were destined to fix up the island after all the disasters that happened?,” the PDP president added. “Do we see the product of that money in terms of our citizens in their day-to-day? The Answer is no.”

Ortiz González and the PDP legislators who accompanied him pointed out that the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds destined to address recovery issues will expire by 2026, while some Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds will expire this year and others next year. Therefore, he said, the clock is ticking in terms of these highly important funds, something that the NPP is aware of.

“The lack of action has been so excessive that the government solicitated an extension of the CDBG-DR funds until the year 2029,” Ortiz González said. “These funds expire this year. They have to justify the lack of action and poor execution of duties by the executive branch.”

Later in the press conference the PDP president and lawmakers denounced the current situation of public schools on the island, which has been the subject of several recent STAR reports. A lack of air-conditioning and incomplete rehabilitation of educational facilities has heightened the suffering of thousands of students during the recent extreme heat wave and made adequate learning all but impossible. The PDP officials questioned why the Pierluisi administration hasn’t used federal funds to supply air conditioning to public schools.

Beyond that, District 23 (Yauco, Guayanilla, Peñuelas and Ponce) Rep. José Rivera Madera said, “in the southern region of the island, teachers are still giving classes in trailers, schools are not repaired, and let’s not even get started on the rehabilitation projects in different municipalities -- it is all plans but no action.” Regarding the lack of air conditioning at most public schools, Rivera Madera, who spoke alongside Ponce District Sen. Marially González Huertas, said “having air conditioning in a classroom is not a luxury, it is a necessity that students have it so that they can learn under proper conditions.”

“Children should go to school to learn, not to suffer,” he added. The PDP charged that the problem isn’t new, and that the Department of Education has received billions of dollars in funds for rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery of school facilities, but has been incapable of using them properly. The party president said “it is inexcusable that only 47% of funds destined for the second phase of Emergency Assistance Funding for elementary and high schools have been utilized.”

“If the money isn’t used, it has to be returned by September 30th,” Ortiz González said.

It is obvious, the PDP officials said, that the root cause of all the aforementioned problems is the management of federal funds. Acknowledging a problem is the first step to creating change, but what solutions can the PDP provide, considering the elections are near?

“The first step to improving funds management is to simplify the process,” Ortiz González told the STAR. “The NPP has created additional structures ever since Hurricane Maria occurred to manage federal funds. I’m not the only one saying this; mayors have stated it, nonprofits have stated it. This has overcomplicated the flow of fund management.”

“One example would be the COR3 [Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency],” he said. “The first thing we need to understand is that we have to reduce the processes so that they are not so bureaucratic. Secondly, there is the reliability of that management. Right now the Department of Education has a syndicate; the last time the department had a syndicate was after [convicted former Education Secretary] Víctor Fajardo. Once the PDP got there, the syndicate disappeared because the funds were managed properly. Once 2017 came around and [former governor] Ricardo Rosselló’s administration was in office, the syndicate came back.”

“Historically the NPP has used the Department of Education as if it was its own personal credit card; that is the truth -- it is history,” Ortiz González said. “We must simplify processes; we have to guarantee the proper management of funds and of course have well established priorities.”

Whether or not such changes will be implemented if the PDP wins back La Fortaleza remains to be seen. While the press conference played out more like an opportunity to call out the NPP for improperly managing funds instead of discussing possible solutions to the problems, it did shed light on the conversations that will be front and center during the upcoming election season.

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