As of January 2020, the government will make available a $100 million state fund to streamline 1,316 small projects pending in 71 municipalities since Hurricanes Irma and María struck the island in 2017.
"Today (yesterday), we announce this great achievement for the benefit of the Puerto Rican people. The most important achievement for our mayors and women mayors, and therefore for the citizens of Puerto Rico," said Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced from La Fortaleza.
Of the total number of projects, there are 1,228 at municipal level while 87 are for non-profit organizations, and one is a request from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).
The works include 579 roads, 64 bridges, nine Head Starts, 54 community centers, 13 centers for the elderly, ten theaters, six health centers, seven cultural spaces, and nine churches. There are also three projects to facilitate access to drinking water in communities.
There are also 60 projects to improve pumping and alarm systems and 365 recreational areas and municipal facilities, including 120 basketball courts, 30 ballparks, 50 parks, 21 playgrounds, 28 recreational areas, and 25 sports complexes.
Vázquez Garced said these projects will have an impact on communities and that the lack of resources to implement them has been keeping municipalities on hold. She also noted that Utado will be one of the towns that will benefit the most with 102 projects.
In order for projects to be part of this initiative called State Recovery Funds they have to be validated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and be between phases three and five of the federal agency's National Delivery Model. They must also be small projects, which means investment should not exceed $123,000.
Phase three of the National Delivery Model involves cost estimates and reviews while phase four implies that the project is in the insurance and historic preservation approval stage. Phase five is review and delivery of funds.
"Advancing these small projects was a priority," Vázquez said.
Projects in phase two - damage inspection - which total 2,200, could be included in the fund once they move to the next phase.
After the announcement, the governor met with the presidents of the Association and Federation of Mayors, José "Joe" Román and Carlos Molina, respectively, to explain the project.
Ceiba, Fajardo, Barceloneta, Manatí, Villalba, Vega Baja and Río Grande have not been included in this first phase since they have not projects in an advanced stage.
Where does the money come from?
The $100 million package was allocated to the Central Office for Recovery and Reconstruction (COR3) after the hurricanes, explained the agency's executive director, Ottmar Chávez.
This reallocation, he said, was discussed with the Oversight Board, which demanded additional controls that were implemented by the government. "They have authorized the use of this $100 million (from the General Fund) to start these projects," he said.
According to the official, participants have to go through a training process –to be held in mid-January- in order to access the money. Once this and other steps are completed, funds will be disbursed.
The State Reconstruction Funds Account will provide sustainable and continuous liquidity to finance these reconstruction projects since the fund will receive money from FEMA reimbursements once compliance is verified. Reimbursement does not necessarily requests the project to be completed.
"Once (participants) go through administrative processes, signing the contract ... the state is going to cover those expenses and once reimbursements come, that is in four or five months, the state takes that part," he said.
If mismanagement in the use of funds is identified, then those participants will not be able to be part of the program again. "We have a compliance team ... and a disbursement team with authorized public accountants," Chávez said, adding that they will submit periodic reports to the Board.
"Now it's time to move these 1,316 projects forward and for municipalities and entities to start with the projects that so many people need," Chávez said.
Both the governor and Chávez acknowledged a delay in federal funds. It was precisely in this search for alternatives to speed up small projects that this possibility arose during a meeting with FEMA in September.
"This is the most important reconstruction project after Hurricanes Irma and María," Vázquez Garced said. In the past, she acknowledged that recent corruption cases, such as those involving the arrest of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher had in Washington.
She said that since she took office, she has committed to working directly with FEMA and COR3. As a result of these efforts, she said, it has been possible to remove some requirements that “previously delayed the management of funds."
"What have we done differently? We established communication, we improved the information provided to the federal agency so that they can authorize the disbursement of funds” she said.
Access to liquidity has also delayed these projects. "Many municipalities, agencies or public corporations do not have that money available to pay for many of these projects," Chávez added.
"We are certainly better off than we were before, considering that we are not satisfied and that recovery continues," Chávez acknowledged.
Mayors support the effort
For Utuado Mayor Ernesto Irizarry, the proposal the governor presented yesterday is simply "great.” "I'm really happy. I'm happy that holidays are over," he said.
Of the 1,316 projects included in the initiative, there are 102 in Utuado, making this municipality the largest recipient. "I think we have to recognize what they achieved because this can only be understood by those who don´t have roads, who are suffering, and who have been waiting all this time," said the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) mayor.
After the hurricane, the municipality of Utuado submitted 523 cases to FEMA, mostly for the repair of highways, roads, and municipal walls. Of that total, the federal agency only disbursed funds for two projects.
"Whoever came up with this initiative did it perfectly. I hope they don't change it because it forces us to do things right, it forces us to maintain that source of repayment. This is spectacular and helps us to show the federal government that we are doing things right," he said, clearly excited.
Ceiba Mayor Ángelo Cruz also seemed happy, since in his case, the private insurance company to which he had submitted part of the claims went bankrupt.
"This is a second relief for many municipalities because we depend on FEMA funds and that has been really slow," he said in an interview.
Cruz, one of those supporting the governor's aspirations to continue leading the island, said he submitted 75 claims for $11 million to FEMA.
"The most important thing here is that this project includes all 78 municipalities. This was not selective. We haven´t seen something like this in a long time," Cruz noted.
Molina welcomed the proposal while adding that he hopes it will be promptly implemented. "We have been waiting a long time and people think we didn´t want to repair roads but actually it was FEMa that has not paid," he said.
He said that yesterday, during the meeting with the governor, they discussed the need to avoid bureaucracy, as has been the case with FEMA and, occasionally, with the COR3.
"That today, more than two years after María, we haven't been able to fix a court, well imagine if FEMA is bureaucratic… I trust they will create a quick mechanism and that they will tell us what they want us ,municipalities, to do," said the mayor of Arecibo.
He agreed that a well-executed mechanism can be an ideal tool to recover the federal government's trust. "There is distrust in the government of Puerto Rico and we have to do things right," he said.
Meanwhile, Román, who presides over the Mayors Association, praised the effort.
"I think it is a good initiative on the part of the governor so that those projects that have been in stand by for more than two years start moving and recovery begins in the 78 municipalities," said the also mayor of San Lorenzo.