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Legislation advances for Puerto Rico towns to hire electrical grid restoration workers

By on January 25, 2018

SAN JUAN – While Puerto Rico debates the future of the Electric Power Authority (Prepa), the Legislature is deliberating a measure that would allow mayors to hire private brigades to restore electric power in their jurisdictions without needing to change the agenda of the weak public corporation.

While House Bill 1380, written by House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez and Rep. José “Quiquito” Meléndez, was being announced, La Fortaleza announced it was preparing a collaboration agreement to integrate municipal assistance with Prepa’s recovery work.

Among the discrepancies with the initiatives is the role of the Federal Agency Management Agency (FEMA) when it reimburses expenses to municipalities. In HB 1380, Prepa is required to certify the municipal work to ensure it is reimbursed.

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“[Prepa] will be left forced to certify such repairs–of the municipality showing evidence they were done in accordance with prevailing industry standards or according to [Prepa’s] specifications–to benefit from those reimbursements or available aid,” the measure reads.

However, the agreement drafted by Prepa states the municipality will be “solely responsible for payment to all its contractors” and Prepa “will not have any responsibility if FEMA does not reimburse the municipality for labor costs and materials the [municipality] incurred.”

The spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, said the differences between the two initiatives expose a gap between the New Progressive Party (NPP) majority delegation and the governor’s public policy, and stressed that the House’s legislative bill is positive.

“The reality is that [HB 1380] contrasts dramatically with the Prepa and La Fortaleza proposed agreement with the municipalities. This relatively creates a norm that contradicts what the governor tried in one way or another to propose,” the PDP leader told Caribbean Business.

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Rep. Meléndez acknowledged that La Fortaleza had no knowledge that the measure would be filed in the Legislature, although he said he does not expect to receive opposition from the governor if the proposal reaches his desk. At the moment, the governor’s position on the measure is unknown.

The bill declares that municipalities that decide to avail themselves of the provisions of the law must notify Prepa–or the Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa)–about initiation of work “within a period no more than five days prior to when the work begins.”

Further adding that mayors must “notify, in writing, the pertinent public corporation, five days in advance, of the exact day on which the work being performed will end.” The change to the Autonomous Municipalities Act can only be activated if a state of emergency is decreed.

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Denis Márquez, House spokesman for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), indicated he had objections with the measure, since it does not establish “an agreement and collaboration mechanism with those who have the expertise.” He added that Prepa is responsible for the island’s electrical grid.

“One thing I have always claimed is that [the repair of] the electrical system has to be in coordination with [Prepa], as a matter of safety and quality. The way in which the legislation is written is that after the mayor does the work, Prepa certifies it. It should not be done like that,” he said.

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The PIP legislator, however, gave the green light to sections of the bill that ask both utilites’ directors to prepare a report detailing the measures both corporations have taken to address future weather emergencies.

“[This] legislation cannot fall into the issue of being an emergency to be approved quickly,” he said.

Legislature in the dark on Prepa’s privatization

Regarding the possibility the recently announced intention to privatize Prepa will affect the legislation, Meléndez said, “Nobody knows for sure” how much time the process will take to complete. He also said the measure will go forward in the Legislative Assembly despite the announcement.

“I have serious concerns about Prepa’s privatization. Not because I don’t believe in the concept–I do believe in the concept–but we have not seen the bill. Until I see that bill and can be clear about the benefits for the people, I cannot give my consent,” he said.

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