Senate reveals ‘x-ray’ of towns at 1st Municipal Summit
SAN JUAN – Dozens of mayors representing Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities convened Tuesday in the Capitol during the first Municipal Summit. Both major party mayors participated in the discussion on the future of the island’s municipalities at the Legislative Assembly.
Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz welcomed the mayors, especially the president of the Mayors Association, which groups officials from the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), Cayey’s Rolando Ortiz Velázquez.
However, it was Sen. Margarita Nolasco Santiago, president of the Senate Municipal Affairs Committee, who presented an informal x-ray of the state of municipalities and what measures are taken to avoid a financial and essential services catastrophe.
“This event is being held with the objective of addressing the situation of municipalities and to see how we can produce bills that can benefit each one of our municipalities. In January this year, I was assigned the Senate Committee on Municipal Affairs and work began with the priority of improving laws, either by amending them or creating new laws that could help municipal governments move forward,” assured Nolasco Santiago, who also served as mayor of Coamo.
“In the committee we began to prepare a picture of the municipalities but we did not find data, there was no place to get it and if obtained through municipalities, they were very different because it was measured in one way in one municipality and another in another municipality. So comparing wasn’t easy,” she added.
Despite the difficulty in obtaining data, Nolasco Santiago shared several of the observations collected in the research carried out by her committee.
Among the major problems identified was a large exodus in some municipalities, high levels of unemployment, lack of statistical information and large tracts of road that need to be paved, especially in rural municipalities
In addition, the senator explained that another finding was the fact that thousands of dollars in federal funds are lost annually for lack of knowledge of how to present more competitive proposals.
Nevertheless, Nolasco Santiago pointed out that despite the difficulties that municipalities have shown generating revenue from property taxes, most municipalities’ credit is good, an indicator she called “positive,” but she admitted that the general perception of the situation towns are going through is not.
“The committee began work evaluating bills, both in the Senate and in the House, and resolutions for investigation to see how we can transform municipalities. If there is something that illustrates this Legislative Assembly’s concern with municipalities is that in seven months 100 bills were filed between the House and Senate, in addition to several resolutions for investigation. Forty-four of these bills were referred to the Committee on Municipal Affairs. In my committee, 29 bill reports have been completed. The Senate approved 19, and seven of them have become law for the benefit of municipalities,” the senator explained.
“In the legislative mandate of the Senate, the issues related to municipal governments have been and are a priority, not because I was mayor, not because the president is as committed to municipalities as he is, it’s that each of us live in one of the municipalities,” she added. “That is why we are trying to evaluate and present measures that provide the necessary tools to the municipalities.”
Efforts to help municipalities
Nolasco Santiago mentioned several initiatives that have been carried out by the Legislative Assembly during this first year of the new administration to rescue the municipalities from fiscal hecatomb.
“The committee, seeing there was also difficulty with federal funds, because there are many federal funds but the municipalities were not making the most of them, we sought to hold a workshop on federal and state funds, as well as legislative donations, and many directors from the federal affairs offices of many municipalities and even some mayors accompanied us,” the committee chairwoman said.
“The Senate president was presented with a bill to give continuity to this effort so municipalities can present their federal proposals in a more competitive way to obtain these funds,” she added.
The senator pointed out several strategies that could increase the operational effectiveness of municipalities, among them Senate Resolution 6, authored by Sen. Zoé Laboy, to investigate the possibility of regionalizing some services offered by municipalities.
Also, to see the consortia and the regionalization of municipal services as an effective option to face the crisis, to maintain the regionalization of the school transportation service, elderly assistance services and beach maintenance, among others.
However, Nolasco Santiago pointed out that the results of the research carried out by her committee suggest that when establishing regions, creating additional-cost centers should be avoided because the objective is to try to save not increase spending.