Puerto Rico minority mayors meet with new governor, Senate president
Committees created to address pressing issues; give Gov. Vázquez 1 month to ‘present results’
SAN JUAN — The Puerto Rico Mayors Association, which comprises the minority Popular Democratic Party’s (PDP) elected officials, met separately Tuesday with Gov. Wanda Vázquez and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, of the ruling New Progressive Party, to discuss a number of issues, including the repeal of the so-called Inventory Tax and Act 29, which exempts municipalities from paying into pensions and health insurance.
“This afternoon, we received the Associated Mayors of Puerto Rico and their president, Joe Román, to learn about their concerns and direct solutions to the fiscal challenges they face. We reaffirm our commitment to fair treatment for all the municipalities of the Island,” Vázquez tweeted after the meeting.
After meeting with the governor for more than two hours, Román said they spoke about what he called the towns’ most pressing matters.
“We agreed on addressing these issues in favor of the people with the new governor…and we established that the…basic elements are health, education, retirement and security,” Román said. “We are going to give the governor the opportunity to be able to achieve addressing the issues, but we need action.”
The San Lorenzo mayor added that action needs to be taken regarding the island’s roadways, “and we were clear that when you look at PDP towns, you see the roads are destroyed, when you look at the NPP towns, and that is the truth, I’m not saying things that aren’t true…what we asked her is to be fair with all the towns.”
Regarding the Senate president, Román had said earlier that Rivera Schatz has always been willing to address “municipal constituents’ claims,” and that during the meeting, committees were created to address the most pressing issues municipalities face. The most urgent matter, he said, was bringing stability to the municipalities.
Román said “the committee created in the Senate” will work with the governor’s office, La Fortaleza, but stressed that PDP mayors will give the governor one month to present results.
“The state took close to $350 million from the municipalities,” the mayor said. “Act 29 was created by both the Mayors Federation and the Mayors Association [and] the Financial Oversight and Management Board agrees with one part of Act 29 but they don’t agree with the health insurance part and this matter is in court.”
Román said the committees created will be working hand in hand with the Senate president.
“And we gave them one month to present the results,” Román said at a press conference. “We focused on Act 29 because it’s the sustenance of the municipal governments. It’s important that it is addressed immediately and that this uncertainty does not continue…about what will happen with the municipal government funds…. This way, it will bring calm and stability to the citizenry, who are the ones that receive the essential services directly.”
Rivera Schatz said the “committees are to address points on what we want to polish and so we can continue strengthening the municipal government’s faculties…. This is not for the mayors.”
The Senate leader added that special education and telecommunications will be classified as essential services. “This is for the people that live in the municipalities,” he said.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, meanwhile, said, “basically, when one goes to Washington and speaks with senators and representatives of both political parties, they speak about former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s negation to name the essential services.”
“The municipalities are basically the ones providing essential services, and we made a petition so that from both the House and Senate the essential services are declared,” Cruz said, adding that she considers healthcare, security, education at all levels and the payment of pensions essential.
“And then take that to Washington,” Cruz said. “So that the senators and representatives have information to change” the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (Promesa).
With the support of the Legislative Assembly and Vázquez, the island’s leaders will be able to take an additional step to reduce austerity measures, Cruz added.
Rivera Schatz said one of the committees will be tasked with establishing which are the essential services.
Cruz said she asked the governor to not sign the controversial land-use plan.
“My specific request was that she not sign it because it was a plan that had been made without following even the minimum representation processes because it threatened natural resources and undermined municipal autonomy. And my explicit request was that she not sign it, and I repeat, her specific answer was, ‘I find that very reasonable,’ which is understood as her not going to sign the land-use plan until there is a democratic process, participatory and with citizen representation and that of all the different entities…,” she said.
Regarding municipalities paying into the Health Insurance Administration (ASES by its Spanish acronym) and the pay-as-you-go pension system, Loíza Mayor Julia Nazario said the governor would seek, along with all the mayors, options before the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board.
“The commitment is that we will be with her, bringing options because she clearly let us know that the law has little chance of sustaining itself,” Nazario said.
Román echoed Cruz, who stressed it was of the utmost importance that the U.S. Congress be given a “definition” of essential services, as well as the direction federal disaster recovery funds are headed, “since to this day we have not received the monies.”
“And, it’s necessary that those people still living under blue tarps see this situation resolved and that those who suffered the shock of Hurricane Maria can have new hope,” Román said.
With regard to the repeal of the Inventory Tax, Román stressed it cannot be eliminated without replacing the funds with another source of income.
“The Inventory Tax has been discussed so many times…. It’s close to $220 million that the towns receive from the Inventory Tax,” Román said. “The only thing we need is that if they say it will be eliminated then how will those $220 million that go to municipal governments be substituted. This will not be discussed until there is an alternative.”
Other issues discussed were the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program funds, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, unused public schools, the law that transfers spas and sports facilities to the municipalities, the Land Use Plan, road construction, among others, according to a Senate release.