Thursday, March 23, 2023

Puerto Rico Public Safety Dept., oversight board spar over fiscal plan, budget

By on March 28, 2019

The governor’s representative to the fiscal board, Christian Sobrino, and Public Safety Director Héctor Pesquera (CyberNews photo)

Reporting, savings and Christmas bonus remain a matter of contention

SAN JUAN – The significant philosophical differences between Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board and the island’s government agencies were overtly displayed Thursday as officials from public safety agencies insisted on the need for higher operating budgets, while the congressionally established panel chided them for failing to submit reports and delaying required consolidations.

At a press conference following the fiscal oversight board’s public hearing to evaluate the status of fiscal plans and structural reforms for the Public Safety Department, which is led by Héctor Pesquera, the governor’s representative on the fiscal board, Christian Sobrino, who is also directs the island’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym), reiterated that the board-certified fiscal plan does not support requirements for police reform that are under evaluation by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gustavo Gelpí.

Sobrino said a study by Vision to Action (V2A) found that the fiscal plan, which would cut funding by about $500 million to the seven public safety agencies, undermines staffing requirements that the Police Bureau must meet. The study, which was shared with the board in October at a meeting attended by its adviser, McKinsey & Co., finds that the fiscal plan will lead to a “deterioration” in public safety, Sobrino said.

The need for higher funding made by the Fire Department, the Institute of Forensic Sciences and the Police Bureau was overshadowed by criticisms from the fiscal board over the so-called Christmas bonus, which employers are legally required to pay; the lack of implementation plans; and the lack of agencies’ awareness about the degree of job absenteeism.

Pesquera said that while the Office of Management and Budget approved a restructuring of the seven entities in February, the consolidations will take time to be implemented and yield savings. Chief Financial Officer Raúl Maldonado said that when the transfer of the Human Resources Administration to his office is completed, the ability to transfer public workers among agencies will become easier, and employees of his office would be transferred to the Public Safety Department (PSD) to assist it in the process.

In response to questions from board member David Skeel, Pesquera said his department will have a timeline to complete the process but that it does not have enough time for the work involved, stressing, “It is not easy to absorb seven different bureaus.”

Maldonado, however, said the implementation plan for the PSD should be ready by April 30.

Tit for tat

The board’s executive director, Natalie Jaresko, noted several times during the hearing that her panel was in the dark as to the finances of PSD components. She insisted on receiving progress reports and information on its seven bureaus, while Pesquera said it was his understanding that she was focusing on the Police Bureau.

“It is for all bureaus. We need progress reports against that plan for each bureau. We have been in various meetings. We have written letters explaining this,” Jaresko said.

Sobrino defended Pesquera, noting that the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (Promesa) only requires implementation plans when the governor accepts board recommendations for implementation.

In response to a question, Pesquera said the person in charge of the restructuring was Marla Canino.

Skeel also asked Pesquera about requirements to report employee attendance, questioning “how well you can manage without knowing who shows up.”

Puerto Rico fiscal board member David Skeel (CB file)

In turn, Pesquera asked Skeel where he got the idea for discussing absenteeism at the police force, to which chairman José Carrión said he was referring to the so-called blue flu. Pesquera said he did not know how many police officers had not shown up for work because each of the bureaus is tasked with logging that.

Jaresko added that Aafaf publishes monthly reporting on attendance but that “it does not come on a regular basis from all the bureaus.”

Regarding the lack of implementation plans, she said that based on her experience, “you need implementation plans, not for the board, but for yourself…. It is a tool for yourself.”

Sobrino then replied that his mother taught him about implementation plans by giving him a to-do list. “But to imply by this hearing or through the publication of letters that somehow Mr. Pesquera and the rest are not complying with the law or duties before the board, would be legally incorrect…. It is a tool, not something to hit them over the head with,” he said, adding that he does not keep track of the number of absent workers at his agency either.

CFO Maldonado then noted that the government was working on a new attendance model to keep track of absenteeism.

The payment of the Christmas bonus at a time when agencies lack resources came to the fore. Fire Chief Alberto Cruz Albarrán told the board that the agency is expected to end the year with a deficit, which the board members chided for having paid the Christmas bonus without sufficient funds.

“We paid it because our workers deserve the payment during the holidays,” Cruz Albarrán said. The Fire Department requested a $103 million budget for its operations.

Carrión mentioned that the board had proposed to the government making the Christmas bonus part of the employees’ salaries, to which Sobrino responded saying he had never heard about such a proposal.

In a press conference after the hearing, Sobrino said the board’s issue with the Christmas bonus has to do with what the payment is called. “If it were called the end-of-year bonus, they would not have complaints,” he said.

During the hearing, it came to light that the early retirement programs approved by the government have caused a shortage of staff. Pesquera said that from July 2018 to January 2019, his department, which has 16,153 employees, lost 733. About 400 workers have taken advantage of early retirement. While the DPS has tried to consolidate entities, it has not been able to achieve some $30 million in savings.

Skeel wondered that if the department needed additional staff but was promoting early retirement, which 400 workers took, “What are you going to do?”

Pesquera said that while the first phase of the early retirement program was implemented, it was decided the following ones would not be. However, he said that if an officer wanted to retire or quit, the department could do nothing about it. Sobrino said the first phase of the early retirement program did not allow the agency head to deny such requests.

Pesquera was asked about police officers joining Social Security instead of receiving a government pension. He said the initiative has been delayed because the department asked for a legal opinion to be able to justify excluding officers older than 40 years old from a referendum on joining Social Security.

The DPS expects to recruit 500 cadets, 125 this year and 375 next year.

At the hearing as well, Forensic Sciences Commissioner Beatriz Zayas informed that she had some 50 candidates awaiting jobs but did not specifically mention the known autopsy backlog issue.

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