Washington – Yesterday, Puerto Rican authorities expressed concern when Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Pamela Hughes Patenaude said she will leave office early next year, which coincides with efforts to overcome the obstacles in the release of reconstruction funds.
Both Jennifer González, Resident Commissioner in Washington DC, and Puerto Rico Secretary of Housing Fernando Gil Enseñat considered Patenaude - who has visited the island a dozen times - as "the main ally" of the island in the government of President Donald Trump. "It will be hard to replace her which will force us to look for a housing champion immediately,” said González, who describe it as a "huge disappointment to hear of her departure from HUD”.
For González, Patenaude will be missed, "especially at a time when we badly need to speed up the process to get those funds where and to whom they need to get.”
Gil Enseñat said that the resignation of Patenaude –who will transition out in January- "could have some kind of effect on our recovery or regarding the relationship we had with her".
"The entire Nation loses one its finest, most transparent and passionate public servants" said, on Twitter, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, who last Thursday met in Washington with HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, and Patenaude.
The government of Puerto Rico faces the departure of Patenaude at a time when it seeks to comply with HUD's requirements for the release of the first $ 1.5 billion in funds from the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), which together with FEMA allocations for permanent projects would allow to direct the reconstruction of the island.
In total, the federal government allocated nearly $ 20 billion in CDBG-DR funds to mitigate the disaster caused by Hurricane María, which caused deaths estimated at 2,975 and, according to the government, losses for $ 100 billion.
But, despite the fact that Secretary Carson visited San Juan - on the first anniversary of Hurricane María - and announced the agreement to disburse the funds, so far, not a single penny has been delivered.
HUD asked the government of Puerto Rico to demonstrate that it has sufficient staff and adequate information systems to manage the funds.
The federal government allocated about $40 billion in disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico. But, so far, the assistance received was directed to place blue tarps in the more than 160,000 damaged homes, restore power service and help finance the health system temporarily.
However, reconstruction funds, which are mainly CDBG-DR allocations or permanent projects through FEMA, have not arrived yet.
The Board in the White House
Amid the uncertainty over CDBG-DR funds and the implementation of permanent infrastructure projects, the president of the Oversight Board, José B. Carrión, and the executive director of the fiscal entity, Natalie Jaresko, met yesterday with Russell Vought, deputy budget director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The Board released a photo of Carrión and Jaresko leaving the meeting, but did not give details on what they discussed. "They have no comments. It is only a regular meeting," said a Board spokeswoman.
On December 6, the Board’s Revitalization Coordinator, Noel Zamot, sent an email to Patenaude expressing interest in cooperating with the release of CDBG-DR funds and to offer the Board as a guarantee for their proper use.
Zamot said in his letter that as part of the role of the Board and the provisions in PROMESA, they would like to work with the HUD team and other interested parties to ensure that the funds will be used for the immediate benefit of the residents of Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, Rosselló Nevares affirmed that it is not the mission of the Board to ensure the disbursement relief funding after María. But it is a fact that the slow release of funds may negatively impact the estimates of the fiscal plan certified by the Board and the first major debt restructuring agreement, Cofina´s, which is to be reviewed by federal judge Laura Taylor Swain in a month.
The Board has the power to review all government contracts over $ 10 million. But, in addition, the fiscal entity indicated that it will oversee the delivery of the funds with the purpose of guaranteeing that they are consistent with the certified fiscal plans and budgets.
According to sources, mid-level federal officials have discussed the possibility of appointing a coordinator to oversee disbursements related to reconstruction, some special agreements to regulate them and even if the Board can exercise greater oversight.
Amid the debate, the OMB director, former Republican congressman Mick Mulvaney, a tough fiscal conservative, gains strength within Trump's government, after Axios revealed that the President wanted to stop relief funding for Puerto Rico.
In January, Mulvaney will replace current chief of staff general John Kelly.
For Javier Llano, Democratic lobbyist from Oldaker and Willison, Mulvaney does not understand the Island’s affairs.
However, Javier Ortiz, executive director at FixPuertoRico.org and partner at Falcon Cyber Investments, said that "Puerto Rico will greatly benefit from Mick's business, legal and governmental experience," as he believes Mulvaney understands the intention of PROMESA and "the devastation after Hurricane María."
The private sector on Patenaude
Yesterday, the private sector also joined the voices that, like the government, highlighted Patenaude´s efforts in favor of Puerto Rico. Specifically, the Builders Association highlighted that the federal official served as support in the reconstruction process.
"Rarely before has Puerto Rico benefited of having such of a close collaborator that has far exceeded her responsibilities. One of her most important contributions is how she managed to bring together all stakeholders to achieve an holistic vision for reconstruction of the island,” stated Emilio Colón-Zavala, chairman of the Puerto Rico Builders Association.
Leysa Caro collaborated with this story.
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