Puerto Rico majority party mayors pleased with new gov
Say Gov. Vázquez rejected creation of a county system on the island
SAN JUAN — Mayors affiliated with Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (NPP) majority met with recently sworn Gov. Wanda Vázquez on Wednesday to discuss funding for their towns and an executive order, penned by the former governor before he resigned, that seeks to begin the reorganization of the central government into seven regions.
The members of the Mayors Federation expressed satisfaction with the meeting held Vázquez at the governor’s Santa Catalina Palace, especially after learning she did not favor the creation of a county system for the island.
“That is not on the governor’s agenda,” Mayors Federation President Carlos Molina said regarding the executive order by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned Aug. 2. The order states that agencies would be divided into seven regions, a matter the also Arecibo mayor said Vázquez would evaluate in the future.
“We left pleased with this meeting; the governor can count on the mayors to work for Puerto Rico,” Molina said, adding that the governor expressed determination to defend Act 29, which exempts municipalities from paying into the retirement system and contributions to the Health Insurance Administration (ASES by its Spanish acronym).
“She will be defending Act 29; she said so,” Molina stressed.
“Both Vázquez Garced and the mayors reiterated their commitment to work hand in hand for Puerto Rico,” according to a statement by the governor’s office issued after the meeting, where “each mayor could raise the specific issues that municipalities have,” the Mayors Federation leader said.
Molina said Vázquez will be evaluating her cabinet and the appointments she will be making. He also expressed support for San Sebastián Mayor Javier Jiménez to fill the governor’s chief of staff vacancy, were the opportunity arise.
“Javier Jiménez has our complete support If he accepts the chief of staff position,” the Arecibo mayor said, while assuring that the secretary of State vacancy was not discussed with the governor, only municipal matters such as recovery funds and issues related to shuttered schools.
Molina also said the mayors made themselves available “to accompany [Vázquez] to Washington D.C.,” echoing remarks Tuesday by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, whose office told Bloomberg that “Vázquez had agreed to meet with her in Washington next month, though a specific date” had not been set.
“The resident commissioner said on Tuesday that she will be programming meetings to help things speed up, there are many issues being discussed there [in Washington], issues such as federal funds for the island’s reconstruction. We were very clear and let her know that we want to go with her to Washington, because we are very interested in that those funds get here so we can rebuild our towns. We have waited a long time and the island came to a standstill during the past three weeks, and the federal funds were paralyzed, so in that sense we need for this to move faster so those funds arrive.”
When asked by Caribbean Business for more details about their hopes in Washington, Molina said that the mayors had so far “told her that we are willing to go to Washington with her,” but that “there is no specific date yet; in that sense, she will be coordinating with the resident commissioner. But we are willing to go and when she asks us to accompany her we are available. A great group of mayors would be accompanying her.”
Before going into the meeting with the governor, Molina hoped to speak with the governor about reconstruction funds that have yet to be allocated to the island’s towns.
“I still don’t know of a municipality that has been able to repair a facility with Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] funds,” Molina said. “We have to touch on the topics of the recovery and reconstruction funds and the executive order signed by the former governor,” Molina stressed. “I don’t favor the counties [system]; I think they would be more expensive” and that such a broad-ranging executive order needs the support of the towns and the Legislative Assembly.
Also before meeting with Vázquez, Bayamón Mayor Ramón Luis Rivera told reporters at the La Fortaleza governor’s mansion that among the topics they would discuss were possible alternatives to Act 29, the so-called municipal Equalization Fund, or matching funds, as well as executive order 40 of 2019 to create a county system.
Act 29 exempts municipalities from making contributions to the government’s health plan, or Plan Vital, and pensions through the “pay as you go” retirement system.
“We always remind the mayors that the case is in court and that they should keep that in mind when managing their budget,” Rivera said. “The CRIM [Spanish acronym for Municipal Revenue Collections Center] board has been in talks with the Financial Oversight and Management Board, looking for mechanisms to maintain at least a minimum equalization fund to be able to help the towns that are most affected.”
NPP mayors hold a press conference after meeting with the governor Wednesday (María Miranda/CB)
Regarding a regional agency system, Rivera noted that although he believes in county systems, he had told former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló “since the first day that the only thing that worried me about the counties is that a third bureaucratic layer would be created.”
“There is the state government, the municipal government and then you have the counties in the middle,” he said. “So that is three levels of bureaucracy…. I am aware that the municipalities have to rethink [their situation] and that we have to do something to face the future; maybe one of the alternatives could be to further shrink the state government and then give some of the responsibilities to the municipalities.”
Rivera assured that he didn’t know Rosselló had signed the executive order and learned about it last Wednesday through media reports.
“The counties is the best idea, and I had told the former governor I was worried that a third bureaucratic layer would be created by having the state government, the counties and the municipalities…and then the services offered to the citizenry would be even worse,” the Bayamón mayor said, adding that a transition process would need to be implemented so “things run effectively.”
Rivera further noted that Rosselló had created groups to look into the county system proposal.
“There were these working groups in different areas and I belonged to one of them,” he said, adding that they only met once, about three months ago, but the “the technical staff that was hired had no idea about what they were talking about.”
Rivera underscored that certain municipalities have the administrative capacity to use Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program funds, but there are towns that don’t, “and that has to be clear.”
“These first days that I have seen the governor working I think she started off on the right foot…,” he said. “She seems to be a person that listens, that seeks [direct] dialogue and that communicates.”
—CyberNews contributed to this report.