Sunday, December 15, 2019

P.R. Mayors: CDBG Funds Should Go Directly to Municipalities

By on January 11, 2019

Cayey Mayor Rolando Ortiz Velázquez

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Jan. 10-16, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Although Puerto Rico’s Mayors Association and Mayors Federation set aside their ideological rivalries in May 2018—agreeing that a $1.5 billion federal grant assigned through the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) should go directly to municipal governments and not to the central government—the reality is the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) is yet to disburse the federal aid while municipalities continue to struggle with their finances.

Mayors from all 78 municipalities that compose the island’s political map continue to point out that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria they proved to be the most effective and experienced government entities to meet constituents’ needs.

For Cayey Mayor Rolando Ortiz Velázquez, who presides over the Mayors Association (AAPR by its Spanish initials) that comprises the current minority Popular Democratic Party (PDP) affiliated town heads, said 2019 could finally be the year when the municipalities’ battered finances are stabilized, as long as the process is completed in an orderly, analytical and transparent fashion.

“From an optimistic point of view, I hope it is the year in which all these contributions materialize and reach the municipalities. I understand that this past year was a year of adjustments, but it is time we can reach a final decision and the funds reach the municipalities,” the mountain town mayor said.

“The reality is that the situation with the central government is about capacity, credibility, and the reality is I do not see enough credibility in the central government to have these funds disbursed to it because of its behavior with previous programs. That is a reality that is very damaging to Puerto Rico—the fact that this government has not been totally reliable or that it has committed grave mistakes that have affected the trust of the people of Puerto Rico and the federal government—and that price is being paid,” he added.

Ortiz Velázquez was hopeful the municipalities’ fiscal situation and residents’ economic reality will improve somewhat this year.

“I think there is room, and opportunities exist for municipalities’ economic situation to dramatically improve, but that will depend on the state [commonwealth] government gaining trust in the federal sphere and receiving the contributions we are expecting to realize projects we have identified,” he said. The central government, he added, should reinvent itself for Puerto Rico, and go beyond party lines and political ideologies.

Likewise, Félix Delgado Montalvo, mayor of Cataño, who is affiliated with the New Progressive Party (NPP), said that difficult times continue for the municipalities, which he said represent the first line of response for citizens, and assured that there are ways to get those recovery funds directly disbursed to the municipalities to ensure they immediately have an impact on the communities.

The mayor mentioned the creation of an umbrella municipality that would administer the disbursements of his district as one of these alternatives.

“For example, Bayamón can take its district and be the one in charge of the entire process to disburse the money. What this guarantees is that this money will reach the municipalities much faster and the citizens will see the results immediately. If we strictly depend on the state, as requested by HUD, can you imagine 78 municipalities waiting for the corresponding procedure for the Housing [Department] to disburse the money? It would take us years for people to see an improvement in their community, and that’s the concern of the 78 mayors,” Delgado Montalvo said.

The mayor reaffirmed the call by both associations that group the mayors to organize the umbrella-like structure to ensure federal funds are disbursed based on an orderly and transparent process.

However, despite reservations, the executive branch has previously pointed out about disbursing CDBG funds directly to the municipalities, Delgado Montalvo assured that the central government favorably views the proposal.

“Based on the conversations the mayors have had with the governor, he sees it [favorably], but the block is with HUD at the federal government level. One can understand that attitude because, in the past, unscrupulous politicians engaged in corruption with [such] funds, and that is HUD’s concern, but it is also a reality that people have an urgent need to repair their homes, to recover. We have an emergency to move communities that are flood-prone. In six months, the hurricane season begins, so we are running against the clock and, still, the federal government continues to delay the process. This is not a whim; it’s a real need,” the mayor stressed.

In May 2018, U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch commented about his “disappointment” with the Rosselló administration’s lack of transparency regarding federal funds.

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