Tuesday, July 16, 2019

FEMA Gives Puerto Rico authority to disburse recovery funds

By on March 29, 2019

FEMA interim Director Mike Byrne and COR3 Executive Director Omar Marrero

Shows island is capable of managing its recovery with same seriousness as any state, official says

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the March 28 – April 3, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Despite public differences between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the management of public funds, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction & Resiliency (COR3), Omar Marrero, and FEMA’s interim director, Mike Byrne, announced an agreement that would transfer to the local government the responsibility of disbursing recovery funds.

Marrero said the agreement came after an intense effort by COR3 to work together with FEMA in the development and establishment of policies, fiscal procedures and internal controls to ensure compliance in the evaluation and approval of disbursements, also known as “Process 270.”

“Our goal is to obtain the disbursement of federal funds in an efficient and effective manner as possible with the goal of achieving progress and the vision of recovery established by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló,” indicated Marrero, who said the established methods and procedures to manage, internally control and hasten the disbursement of funds “will show that Puerto Rico is in a better position to manage its own recovery.”

The executive director of COR3 insisted the agreement shows the government of Puerto Rico is capable of managing its own recovery with the same seriousness and responsibility as any other state. Marrero indicated that control of the disbursement process is limited to funds managed by FEMA and not to other monies, such as Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds, which are administered by the federal Department of Housing.

Meanwhile, Byrne praised the local government’s ability to manage the funds and was pleased the island can finally move on to the next phase of its recovery.

“I think it is important to recognize that we have always been in sync in terms of wanting to make sure the tax dollars and grants that we are authorizing are used in the most responsible way. That has always been the case,” Byrne said. “What’s exciting about this juncture is that the capability is in place, the confidence is in place to have Puerto Rico manage that process and go forward.

“When you think about the scope and scale, we’ve been dealing with unprecedented amounts of money and will continue to do so going into the future. And it will be many, many years that Puerto Rico is going to be managing this process, and we have full faith and confidence that they are going to do the right thing and that we again, together, can stand and tell all the taxpayers in America that this money, it’s been spent properly and wisely,” Byrne said.

Experts hired

The officials said that to ensure the process is efficiently and transparently carried out, and with full protection and compliance with applicable federal regulations, COR3 hired experts to establish, in collaboration with FEMA, the necessary protocols to take over the task of managing FEMA funds. Marrero did not indicate how much of the contract is awarded for this function.

Asked what could have caused the White House’s and certain sectors of Congress to change their position—who had showed great skepticism in transferring the disbursement of recovery funds to the Rosselló administration after several scandals involving allegedly illegal contracts—Byrne said the establishment of new controls provides greater confidence.

“It’s not so much that anything has changed. What happened is that from the outset we, together, have put in place controls so we have a high degree of confidence that the money is being spent on what it was intended to be spent on,” Byrne said.

“These grants…are going to be rebuilding the infrastructure of the commonwealth, so there is nothing simple about it, or the work of these two agencies [FEMA and COR3],” he added. “We have a high degree of confidence now that the procedures we have in place will do exactly that, and we welcome any scrutiny of what they wanted in place.” Echoing Gov. Rosselló’s expression, Byrne added, “This is going to be the most transparent recovery in history.”

“There will be no tolerance, no suspicion of fraud, abuse, waste or negligence in the handling and disbursement of these federal funds,” Marrero assured, since the COR3 office has established a confidential line as an independent and impartial mechanism to report any illegal act regarding these funds. People wishing to make a report can call, free of charge and in total confidentiality, 1-888-876-7548 or access transparencypr.ethicsglobal.com.

The announcement to transfer responsibilities came only weeks after former Revitalization Coordinator Noel Zamot made serious allegations involving the supposed illegal manipulation in the evaluation of multimillion-dollar investment projects under Title V of Promesa Act.

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