The San Juan Daily Star
Probe sought into possible irregularities in disposal of ‘public nuisance’ properties
Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón
By THE STAR STAFF
As the number of abandoned properties that have become public nuisances goes up, more municipalities are hiring private firms to dispose of them as part of a process that some say is plagued with irregularities and benefits special interests.
For that reason, Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón called for a probe to document possible irregularities in the privatized processes for the disposal of properties declared public nuisances.
The pro-independence senator said that in recent public hearings of the Treasury Committee, officials from the Municipal Revenue Collections Center (CRIM its Spanish acronym) expressed suspicion about the invoices submitted by private companies to which several municipalities have delegated the powers related to the declaration and disposal of public nuisances.
CRIM said it was common to see invoices claiming the same amount for the maintenance expenses for various properties: $10,000.
“Added to this is the concern that the companies, using the state’s power to expropriate as part of their contracts, could be using unlawful criteria to choose which properties to intervene with,” Santiago Negrón said. “The Municipal Code also establishes that, at the moment of being acquired by the municipalities, the properties declared public nuisances are relieved of the debts with the Municipal Tax Collection Center (CRIM).”
Once a property has been declared a public nuisance, the municipality can seize the property in an eminent domain process that can allow any person or entity under privileged conditions to acquire the property, the senator said. Eminent domain allows the government to seize a property after compensation by justifying the need to put it to public use.
“This is what happened years ago in San Mateo de los Cangrejos in Santurce, where the properties of an entire community were expropriated at low prices to sell to builders of high-value buildings,” she said.
The municipalities operate as real estate agents for certain interests instead of protecting the common good, Santiago Negrón said.
“A company contracted by a municipality can choose a property for which there may already be interested buyers, declare it a public nuisance, invoice thousands of dollars in alleged maintenance, collect that invoice from the municipality, manage the CRIM exemption, put the property up for sale, and someone acquires it for their personal benefit at a price that is only possible through the scheme of expropriation of public nuisances,” the lawmaker said.
“By a determination of the Supreme Court of the United States, the declaration of public utility that allows the government to expropriate private properties has been extended in an unreasonable way, allowing the state to use its power for the benefit of individuals,” Santiago Negrón noted. “That is a matter that also requires legislative action. Given the concern about the alarming amount of abandoned properties in the country, which according to the Center for the Recovery of the Habitat is around 300,000 units, it is imperative that the Senate of Puerto Rico investigate this matter, which may also imply a decrease in income of the CRIM.”