The FEMA's representative of the governor, Omar Marrero. (horizontal-x3)
The FEMA's representative of the governor, Omar Marrero. (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Governor Ricardo Rosselló´s administration has not presented to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) a plan to exempt the island from a more rigorous process to release federal recovery funds.

Although Puerto Rico has not been listed as a "high-risk" recipient, FEMA has imposed the Puerto Rican government strict criteria that require an audit before disbursing any assistance to the government or municipalities through FEMA´s Public Assistance (PA) program.

On November 7, 2017, FEMA informed the government of Puerto Rico that it would carry out "a manual disbursement process" that implies an "additional review prior to the delivery of funds." The agency justified this determination by saying that it was due to "the magnitude and costs associated with response and recovery efforts" following hurricanes Irma and María.

Since then, Rosselló Nevares and Omar Marrero, authorized representative of the governor before FEMA (GAR), said they would demand the exemption of the island from what they call Standard Form-270 (Request for Advance or Reimbursement), which must be accompanied with documentation and FEMA’s approval for each disbursement.

Last May, Marrero told El Nuevo Día that FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico negotiated new parameters that would allow the island to move from those strict requirements imposed. He had said that FEMA "is open to hearing alternative proposals to be waived from that process and we are working on it," he said.

However, so far, the government has not submitted its proposal to FEMA.

"To date, the proposal for the internal control plan has not been received," FEMA spokeswoman Delyris Aquino Santiago said in written statements.

She stressed that FEMA and the government are working to eliminate Form 270, but pointed out that "it will be eliminated once FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico reach an agreement on the internal control plan to deal with the management of subsidies, funds and the oversight of sub-beneficiaries".

"Once FEMA receives the proposal of the plan of the government of Puerto Rico, this will accelerate the elimination of SF-270," she added.

"Trust" between governments

 Marrero, who is also the director of Puerto Rico´s Central Recovery and Reconstruction Office (CRRO), said in written statements that he continues "working hand in hand with FEMA to ensure that the interests of Puerto Rico are met during the transfer of the SF-270 process".

"The CRRO has worked diligently during the past months with its consultants in establishing new policies, procedures and internal controls necessary to handle the SF-270. Completing the transfer that we hope to achieve in the coming weeks represents a great step to strengthen relations and trust between both governments," said Marrero, who did not specify what the obstacleis.

The governor has repeatedly rejected the fact that those high standards required to Puerto Rico are due to a lack of credibility caused by the Whitefish contract -granted almost immediately after the hurricane - for the restoration of the power grid. Rather, he attributes it to an "unequal treatment" regarding the island´s colonial status.

Meanwhile, the longer the disbursement of funds takes, the longer the island´s recovery process will take, which, nine months after Hurricane Maria, has not yet been completed and there are still families without power.

The situation in the municipalities is not different from that of the central government, since their bill are scrutinized using the same mechanism.

Carlos Delgado Altieri, mayor of Isabela, explained that they submit to FEMA what they call the PW (Project Worksheet) that once approved goes to the GAR and with with Form 270 attached. "We depend on them," said the mayor.

 The mayor of Aibonito, William Alicea, also noted that the disbursement process was slow. "Every paper submitted by municipalities, is scrutinized. All of them”.

But both mayors were unaware that the central government had not yet completed the process with FEMA to obtain a waiver of strict criteria.

This delay joins the fact that there are still no permanent projects in progress. It was not until last April that FEMA and the government agreed to the guidelines for the permanent project program under Section 428 of the federal Stafford Act, which covers - with FEMA funds - not only repairs for the damage caused by the hurricane, but new constructions or permanent reconstructions. These are Public Assistance program funds.

 Through the program, once the cost for a construction is agreed, FEMA will cover 90 percent of the costs and the remaining 10 percent will be covered the local government.

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