Washington - Yesterday, the government of Puerto Rico softened its position on the possible appointment of a federal coordinator to oversee the reconstruction process of the island still seeking to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane María.
Oscar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico's Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (COR3), said that if the position aims to streamline federal coordination, then it would be positively welcomed.
But “if the position will bring additional federal bureaucracy, then we will not agree,” said Marrero in a telephone interview.
On Friday, La Fortaleza Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira, who is the governor's spokesman, was categorical in rejecting the proposal, that was welcomed by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, and described that position as an unnecessary step.
"We already have more limitations and controls than other jurisdictions… that would be an additional bureaucratic step”, said Maceira, in an interview in Radio Isla, placing Governor Rosselló and the Commissioner on opposite sides.
In a statement released on Thursday, after a meeting with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, González said she proposed the creation of a federal coordinator for the Puerto Rico reconstruction process, but did not offer details for the position.
Yesterday morning, Rosselló and González shared the flight from Washington to Puerto Rico, however, on Twitter, the Commissioner suggested that it was a coincidence.
The possibility of creating the position of federal coordinator or “reconstruction czar” has been discussed within the Trump administration for a few months.
In December, El Nuevo Día revealed a draft executive order in which President Trump was prepared to create the position that would be under the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to that document, the federal coordinator would organize the response to Hurricanes Irma and María in Puerto Rico and the distribution of federal funds and would serve as the liaison of the Executive Branch with Congress, the government of Puerto Rico and local governments, the private sector and community leaders.
Marrero said that the structure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already includes a federal coordinator with links with other offices. FEMA funds coordinator for Puerto Rico has been current FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne.
However, other allocations, such as those of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are coordinated independently.
COR3 director said that no one in the Trump administration has told them about the possibility of appointing a federal coordinator. Nor has he talked to Commissioner González to see if they described the position to her or how she conceives the role of a federal coordinator.
However, Marrero thinks that González sees that federal czar as a person who will help streamline processes in federal offices related to the reconstruction, such as FEMA, the Department of Housing, the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury.
After hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in Louisiana and other states in 2005, former President George W. Bush appointed Donald Powell as the reconstruction czar. According to the Bush administration archives, Powell was tasked with "the development of a long-term reconstruction plan" for the Gulf Coast of México.
Marrero argued that they would object to the federal coordinator becoming "a monitor that sets the priorities of the reconstruction process."
In recent statements, Governor Rosselló, Maceira and Marrero did agree in claiming that the government of Puerto Rico will assume the responsibility to make the disbursements for the permanent works that FEMA will fund.
At a time when FEMA treats Puerto Rico as a high-risk jurisdiction, disbursements for permanent works financed by that office should be controlled by the federal agency.
Last Tuesday, Rosselló sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for FEMA to finance repairs to preexisting conditions in critical facilities damaged by María in upcoming disaster relief funds allocations. These allocations do not include the additional $ 600 million package requested for nutrition assistance and a waiver from FEMA matching funds requirements over debris removal and emergency measures.
Marrero said that FEMA's refusal to finance the repair of pre-existing conditions resulted in a reduction from 41,4 billion to $435 million on the funds estimated to rebuild 64 schools impacted by Hurricane María.