2019 begins with changes in Rosselló Nevares cabinet, and his administration expects a stop to the "undue interference" of the Oversight Board, they will also continue to distribute educational vouchers to public school students and the renewal of the power grid.
If everything continues as planned, major reconstruction works will continue.
Rosselló Nevares expects to have the first federally funded post hurricane reconstruction works on track by the end of the first quarter of 2019. Investment will especially focus on housing repair programs and communities relocation, among other initiatives.
Similarly, by September and October, hurricane damage estimates should be completed in order to start public infrastructure renewal projects through funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This includes improvements to the power grid that will help have a clearer picture for the privatization process of the Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The privatization initiative, as if it were a tech device, was named by the governor as the Energy 2.0 Model.
"I think we have already steered large part of the reforms process we had proposed and we are in a position to implement them," Rosselló Nevares said in an interview with El Nuevo Día.
Looking ahead to the third year of his term, Rosselló Nevares answered questions about his expectations for 2019. He explained why many houses with still have blue tarps, why many intersections still lack traffic lights and what his administration will do to address gender-based violence. He also discussed reconstruction projects and commented on his differences and agreements with the Board and with FEMA.
What should happen in 2019 to make it a good year for Puerto Rico?
-A couple of things ... This is a year of fulfillment and execution. One is to make sure we have the most transparent and effective reconstruction process in history ... The priority is to direct the Energy 2.0 Model, which is the energy transformation of Puerto Rico; to advance the education reform in order to have a model that provides overall quality education for children, and the Abriendo Caminos (Opening Roads) road repair project. We have already identified the resources and it is important to see results. Safety issues are important, and making Puerto Rico a place that is open to doing business and executing as well as a new health care model.
The issue of the Forensic Sciences Bureau (NCF, Spanish acronym) generates concerns, shall we see its operation problems resolved at some point?
-I know and I have concerns, as well. This has been a chronic problem for decades. We have come to seek solutions when they cut back (the budget). That is the biggest obstacle. We have a series of creative initiatives to make the Bureau effective ... (He mentioned the collaboration of students with the NCF, requests for help from the federal government and the special tax rate granted to pathologists so that they do not leave the island). In the long term, it is a matter of funds. If the Department of Public Security (umbrella agency of the NCF) is not given the flexibility to reinvest in their needs and the Puerto Rican government’s priorities are not acknowledged, we will always be in this situation of limited resources.
What would be reasonable to expect in the Bureau of Forensic Sciences for 2019?
-To give resources to the Department of Public Security (DSP, Spanish acronym) with the commitment that the sources for the money from other parts of the government will be identified. Once you have that power, the DSP will find ways to solve the human resources problems we have there.
That requires that the differences with the Board in the handling of the money dissipate. Right?
-We can sit at the table and talk, but it is not reasonable for the Board to manage the government operations. Well, it does not actually manage them, but it hinders them by putting a series of requirements that prevent the government from doing things. I have the best disposition. This year, the mandate of the members of the Board comes to an end and potentially, another process will begin. There has been much discussion about the Democratic majority that wants to examine PROMESA. For me, the crucial thing is the operational involvement of the Board within the government that, frankly, does not have the capacity to do so.
What changes could be expected within the operation of the Board?
-I know it always sounds sexier or more newsworthy when there is a dispute ...
I am not asking about the differences ... I am asking about the future changes that you foresee ...
-I want to frame that future in the fact that we have agreed on 95 percent of the things with the Board. That important fact is not being said. Of course, we have some fundamental and philosophical differences in some areas. We have differences in the subject of pensions, in terms of the management and structure of the government. In the other things, the difference is almost always in a matter of degrees. They say that we must spend this, and we understand that it must be so ... If we can solve the problem of the undue interference of the Board in the government, then we can work. My expectation would be to have a Board that understands its role ...
With FEMA there have been similar disagreements ... What would you expect this next year regarding the differences between your administration and FEMA? Is it something that can be improved?
-Yes, it is something that can be improved. FEMA is a huge agency and there are very good people. I could say that Mike Byrne (Coordinating Officer of FEMA) is a great guy, but (the agency) is a very large and very rigid structure. They are very structured. Add to that that we are entering into a new mechanism, which is called the 428 (the section number of the Stafford Act that enables it), which allows us to make an estimated estimate of the damages ... With this, we could now make improvements to the grid (and not rebuild what already existed) with underground and renewable energy generation, among other things.
When are the works expected to begin?
- It is expected that, by September or October 2019, we will already have met the estimates of Section 428 and we could have access to those resources. My request is that we accelerate that process. That would speed up recovery significantly. That would give us an idea of how many FEMA resources we would have for reconstruction and develop the new energy model. (He also mentioned that FEMA retained the disbursement power in Puerto Rico, contrary to what happens in other jurisdictions, and imposed additional requirements to make way for permanent improvement projects).
Do you have a realistic expectation that the differences with FEMA can be resolved in 2019?
- My expectation was to resolve that last year (2018). I think so. I had a meeting with FEMA managers a few weeks ago to talk about this. We agreed that there would be another meeting to explain what the next steps are. They have some requirements and, once we complete those steps, we expect a change.
I suppose that it will depend on all this that the traffic lights repairs are finished, the houses with blue tarps attended to ...
-The problem with the blue tarps is one that causes me to talk about a dynamic that is coming up at the federal level between the two agencies that are granting resources ...
The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and FEMA?
-Yes. HUD and FEMA. FEMA had begun that job of changing the tarps and roofing these homes that, at one point, were more than 60,000. When the allocation of CDBG-DR funds (from the Community Development Block Grant Grant for Disaster Recovery) was given to Puerto Rico, then FEMA said that it was the responsibility of HUD. It is somewhat misleading because, as everyone knows, there was an assignment by statute, but it had to go through a series of processes for us to be able to use those funds. That has stalled a bit. That begun in September and has significantly delayed the process. We have to always think about the next hurricane season and it is not good life quality o have a blue tarp over one’s home. That is going to be one of the priorities. When the CDBG-DR reconstruction funds are delivered on March or April, since the construction work is already underway, we will be able to address a large part of that concern.
Are not CDBG-DR funds supposed to be used only for those needs that could not be covered by FEMA? Did FEMA abandon the project early?
-What happens is that, in the case of the roofs, as it is an issue in the houses, they say it is HUD’s responsibility. There is the detail.
Many of the traffic lights are still not repaired. When will they attend to that?
-I have many priorities, but safety and roads are critical areas that we should start on. Not just the bumps in the roads, the traffic lights and the lighting. We have looked for solutions. The lighting is an area with great obstacles. There were 106,000 light poles that were down. If this was done with PREPA personnel, it would take us six years to complete it. What we have done is reach some agreements with the municipalities so that they can bring the personnel and that is sped up.
And the traffic lights?
-With traffic lights, it was a question of demand for traffic lights. Additional traffic light requests have been made. That has been very frustrating because we do not have the traffic lights to install them. It's not like they're in a warehouse and they do not install them.
One of the issues to which changes have been publicly demanded is gender-based violence. How are you going to deal with the issue in 2019?
-That is one of the priority areas. For this to be successful, it requires for the society to be involved. I have asked the Women's Council that to have an execution plan starting the year. I am going to meet with the heads of agencies to see the work they have done, where we are and where we are going, and one of the requests that I have made to the Council, and that they have as an assignment, was to be able to have some very specific initiatives that addressed those global problems, particularly the matter of the aggressor. I understand that we have been diligent in promoting the care of victims with homes for the victims, funds for non-profit organizations that serve them, legal protections, among other initiatives. But there is a very important point and that is how we can intervene and prevent that behavior from happening. I have some ideas, but this should be a broader conversation in society. Already for the first weeks of the year, we will have a clear picture of the initiatives, how we will reach the communities.
What kind of changes will there be in the cabinet?
-I'm going to make changes, but the truth is that, at the moment, I have not been able to sit down to do that deep analysis. My expectation is that, by mid-January, everything will be quite clear. I am evaluating it now and cannot advance it.
How drastic will changes in the cabinet be?
-It depends. Sometimes, one has to bring in new human resources, sometimes it is about making adjustments, and sometimes, changing a person from one position to another. Part of my job is to see that chessboard and see where they can serve the people better.
There is much talk of possible changes in the leadership of the departments of Health, and Transportation and Public Works (DTOP, Spanish acronym) ...
-They are going to be evaluated, but, so far, I have to say no. Truly, I go through a process with all this, and I have done it in the past. For the summer, I made that process and, at some point in the previous year, I did the same. I give myself the space to do the self-assessment and there are some things in that self-evaluation that let me know clearly that changes have to be made and there are others that are not seen that make me understand that an official must be in his position despite the perception issues.
I suppose that the Secretary of Justice would not be one of those to leave her position, judging by the support she has been given last month ...
-Yes. I can say that because there has been an evaluation process that has been public. She has done an excellent job. She has created the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), has increased the percentage of convictions and achieved the relocation of the Department (to a new building).
But there was the ethical imputation of the independent special prosecutors against her. How much more do you think you can have two of the main law and order agencies attacking each other?
-I think that has to end now. I would not understand what is the reason for following that process through. Unlike other cases, the people of Puerto Rico saw what happened there and, for the most part, agree with what they observed. Now we have to turn the page and go to the evaluation process of our Justice system. I think it is important that we can have a pillar where the people feel that their civil rights are going to be protected, that they will not be subject to any type of persecution.
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