San Juan mayor marks 100 days in office amid governmental challenges
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Amid the economic and infrastructure challenges that Puerto Rico’s capital city faces, San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero Lugo said Monday that he remains focused on fulfilling his government plan and restoring residents’ trust in the municipal administration as he marked his first 100 days in office.
In an interview with the STAR at San Juan University College in Hato Rey, where Romero, as part of Section 8’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, handed out a second round of housing vouchers worth up to $5,000 each to 36 capital city residents who were at risk of being evicted, the mayor told the newspaper that his administration has sped up infrastructure relief projects such as fixing and reopening Luis Muñoz Rivera Park, Luis Muñoz Marín Park and the San Juan Natatorium with “money that was available, not money that arrived when Miguel Romero got here.”
Romero said some $20.8 million from the island Housing Department’s City Revitalization Program had been left unused by the previous municipal government. The availability of those funds made it possible to reopen the aforementioned facilities much sooner, he said.
“It sounds incredible, but nothing had been done to access that money, not even an ordinance had been approved at the municipal level for the city to enter into an agreement with Housing,” he said.
Romero said his administration was able to continue other urban revitalization initiatives, economic development projects such as “Capital Entrepreneurship,” and beautification projects such as the cleanup of some 2,800 longitudinal feet of aquatic resources and picking up “more than 13,000 tons of rubble and garbage, mainly accumulated due to the abandonment of cleaning services.”
However, the mayor pointed out, challenges still continue for the administration after a transition process he described as “extremely difficult,” in which Romero took then-Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto to court last November to request the start of the transition process after he was elected. The case was resolved in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.
“It was a transition in which complete information on operations was not given, [in which] the law was not complied with,” the mayor said. “These challenges are being handled, but again, I have found a human resource [component that is] inspired to work, well-motivated to move the capital city forward, and that motivates me too, [knowing] that if these 100 days have been intense, the rest will be just as intense.”
Romero told The STAR that upon reaching the Office of the Mayor, his administration encountered a retirement debt of over $124 million, more than $107 million in debt to contractors and suppliers, government debts that exceeded $19 million, and a $33.3 million operational deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“The municipality has no one to trust for this situation,” the mayor said. “Here a candle is owed to each saint, and that minimizes your capacity for action.”
“For example, this retirement debt, guaranteed by remittances from CRIM [the Spanish acronym for the Municipal Revenue Collections Center], has the effect that excess funds from CAE [the Spanish acronym for Special Additional Contribution], which last year [totaled] $9 million, this year we did not receive them, and that is money used to collect garbage and fix roads,” Romero added.
When the STAR asked if the information found after the municipal transition hearings had caused him to modify his government plan, Romero replied that “priorities remain the same,” but that both he and his administration had to take further steps to identify recovery projects and obligate available federal funds.
Furthermore, he said, the municipal administration has sent out initial notices on three bidding processes to start the ball rolling on 26 projects that could mean the allocation of up to $180 million in disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I try to be conservative because I want to be responsible, because I like people to have expectations, but real ones,” Romero said, noting that San Juan streets and roads, although a priority for him, will take “time and patience” to fix because municipal funding is required.