Washington - The Puerto Rico National Guard was the big loser with Donald Trump’s administration decision to divert $ 3.6 billion in military construction projects to build part of the USA-México border wall.
Nearly $ 341 million allocated to nine projects approved by Congress for military constructions in National Guard facilities – after the damage caused by Hurricane María two years ago – are among the funds that Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered to reallocate to the border wall, after President Trump's request.
If the construction of a new school at the former Ramey base, a U.S. Army project, is included in this list, then projects on the island lost funds for $ 402.5 million.
According to the Pentagon, Trump's decision to declare an “emergency” in the southern border and to order the diversion of funds from military construction projects previously approved by Congress to fences and barriers on the border with México will affect 127 projects in 23 states, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and 20 countries where they have military facilities.
Six of the nine projects already have design contracts, a process that was going to be extended for a year anyway. However, unless funds are reallocated by Congress for federal fiscal year 2020-2021, construction works can take at least one year to begin, said Maj. Gen. José A. Reyes, Adjutant General of Puerto Rico National Guard.
If Congress re-allocated funds for federal fiscal year 2020-2021, which begins in October 2020, the delay could be only three months, Reyes said. If Congress doesn’t reallocate funds, projects could be canceled.
Although they are projects in military facilities, these are initiatives usually developed by contractors in Puerto Rico.
“Bids are awarded in Puerto Rico and usually local companies carry out the work. (It usually is) an injection to the Puerto Rican economy in the construction area,” the general said.
Seven projects for improvements related to damage related to Hurricane María at Camp Santiago are among those projects left without funds totaling $ 80 million for training areas; $ 64 million for the construction of a new helicopter hangar, which would replace the one in San Juan; $ 50 million for improvements including classrooms; $ 47 million for transient training facilities for soldiers mobilized to U.S. bases; $ 18.5 million for power substation; $ 13 million for three dining halls; and $ 11 million for engineering maintenance shops.
The other two National Guard projects affected by President Trump’s and the Pentagon’s decision are those that allocate $ 30 million for a new readiness center in Arroyo and $ 28 million for a vehicle maintenance shop in Gurabo.
The decision will also impact the plan to build a new school at the old Ramey Base in Aguadilla, for which Congress allocated $ 61.07 million.
The National Guard had a total of 10 construction projects assigned. The only one that doesn’t lose funds is a 1,500-bed new barracks project that was awarded to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Unlike the others, the same entity will design and develop the project.
Reyes said he received the official information on Wednesday, just as the list of 127 affected projects was publicly disclosed. "It has been many years since Puerto Rico’s National Guard received the approval for those funds," said Reyes in a telephone interview.
Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González said that "it is disappointing that funds assigned to Puerto Rico and other U.S. jurisdictions for needed military construction projects could be redirected for other purposes."
She said she will ask “further clarification of why these specific projects were selected is needed. I am deeply worried about this potential outcome and will continue vehemently advocating military programs for construction and other purposes on the island.”
When Trump threatened to use the funds allocated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for canalization projects in Puerto Rico, Commissioner González said that if it happened, she would resign as president of the U.S. Republican Party on the island.
Democrats in Congress said they will fight Trump's intention to withdraw those funds from projects approved by Congress. “It is tragically ironic that as we approach the two-year anniversary of María and our fellow citizens continue struggling to recover, the President of the United States is effectively pulling the rug out from under them to pay for an unpopular, hateful and ineffective border wall,” said Puerto Rican congressman Nydia Velázquez (New York).
According to Velázquez, “not only will the reprogramming of these funds make Puerto Rico less prepared in the event of disasters, but it would likely harm the local economy, by depriving on-island contractors of job-creating opportunities.”