There is concern and uncertainty among Puerto Rican mayors over the impact that the passage of Hurricane Dorian through Florida and Georgia may have on the distribution of Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) on the island, since two years after Hurricane María, they have not received those funds.
"We have a situation with Hurricane Dorian, a catastrophic phenomenon for Florida. What implications does that have for Puerto Rico's funds? We don't know. That is an element of uncertainty, and our fellow citizens can't live in uncertainty," acknowledged Toa Baja Mayor Bernardo "Betito" Márquez.
"It is important to work in solidarity, because we are in September, and it is the peak of the hurricane season," he added.
A group of mayors from both the New Progressive Party (PNP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) met yesterday with Chief of Staff Zoé Laboy to discuss the delay in the release of the nearly $20 billion in CDBG-DR funds allocated to the island.
"The governor (Wanda Vázquez Garced) said it from the beginning, she is looking for results. We know that there are situations with federal funds, particularly with those that have to do with recovery," Laboy said upon arriving at La Fortaleza.
As a result of the meeting, they agreed to improve communication channels between the municipal governments and the Housing Department which handles the funds and to analyze the viability for entitlement municipalities –that is municipalities with over 50,000 inhabitants- to receive part of those funds directly, under Law 162-2018, which provides for that agency to manage the funds.
"That is going to be discussed with Housing; that these CDBG-DR funds reach those municipalities that have the structures and can manage some of these projects at the consortium level," said Caguas Mayor William Miranda Torres.
CDBG-DR funds have been allocated for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of homes affected by Hurricanes Irma and María.
According to government data, there are some 30,000 families living under blue tarps in Puerto Rico. In Caguas, there are about 250 families living in these conditions.
"We haven't seen a penny yet. As for reconstruction funds, I still don't know how much we will receive or what the priority will be,” said Arecibo Mayor Carlos Molina, leader of the Mayors Federation, which groups PNP mayors.
Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat, through his spokeswoman Leticia Jover, said they have complied with all the dates and requirements established by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
"We are waiting for the grant agreement to be signed, which will give way to the release of the second package and the beginning of some of the programs contained in the amended Action Plan," Gil Enseñat said.
San Lorenzo Mayor José "Joe" Román Abreu, also president of the Mayors Association, which brings together Popular Democratic Party (PPD) mayors, stressed the importance of improving communication with Housing to also speed up the release of CDBG funds for infrastructure development.
Since CDBG funds allocated to municipalities with less than 50,000 inhabitants were first handled by the Office of the Commissioner of Municipal Affairs (OCAM, Spanish acronym), and later by the Office of Community and Socioeconomic Development (ODSEC, Spanish acronym) and then by Housing, their distribution was delayed.
"As OCAM was dismantled and then they went to ODSEC, the documents are not available, and this results in Housing having to request municipalities for these documents when they were already submitted," said Román Abreu.
He said that there is also an alleged disagreement between HUD and the local Housing Department which has prevented the funds from reaching the municipalities.
"The funds are in Housing, but authorization is required for them to be released," he said, in referring to a $25 million package in CDBG funds that would be distributed among some 40 municipalities.
The importance of sending to Congress the message that the island's government is working things out after Ricardo Roselló Nevares´resignation and the arrests of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and former Executive Director of the Health Insurance Administration (PRHIA) Ángela Ávila was also discussed during the meeting.
Ponce Mayor María "Mayita" Meléndez said she would go to Washington D.C. next week. "Obviously, this can't be delayed anymore, we've been waiting for two years," the mayor said.