Aibonito - The idea of creating counties seems to have been left in the past, and now the Oversight Board is focusing on the possibility of establishing consortiums as a reorganization and municipal economic development model.
The Board, which never supported the idea of creating a county-like system, wants the project to improve the economic and fiscal situation of municipalities to come from the mayors themselves. As part of that effort, yesterday the Board´s chairman José Carrión and Executive Director Natalie Jaresko visited Aibonito and Barranquitas.
"In general terms, we are agnostic about this issue. What we want is a solution that comes from the mayors. We see consortiums as an important path (for municipalities); as a model for Puerto Rico," Carrión said.
Aibonito and Barranquitas and Comerío participate in a shared services partnership to improve and integrate the permitting process, known as ABC Consortium, which since 2016 has proved to beneficial to the three municipalities.
Besides, the two municipalities the Board directors visited yesterday, along with other municipalities, are working on the creation of another consortium called the Regional Transit Service Program for the Central Mountain Region, which seeks to improve transportation.
Yesterday, Carrión and Jaresko had the opportunity to listen to municipal officials, businessmen and community leaders from both municipalities.
Aibonito and Barranquitas are two of the 10 municipalities that the Board selected –under PROMESA- to be part of a pilot project. This pilot project requires that municipalities participating in the program, in addition to the Municipal Revenue Collection Centre, file a fiscal plan.
"We continue to visit each of the municipalities we are working with to better understand their situation, to listen to the mayors, the officials and the people who live there. We want to hear what they think, what their problems are and how we can support them," Jaresko told El Nuevo Día.
"We're talking about economic growth and how to promote more investment in small businesses and protect them," Jaresko said.
Carrión described the conversations as "very interesting.” He stressed that economic solutions for municipalities should come from their respective elected officials."
"It has to be a Puerto Rican solution, not an imposed solution. We are simply saying that we see the consortium model as a good model. We understand that it would be a good model to follow. Tomorrow, if mayors and the government decide otherwise, as long as they can work within the fiscal parameter, then that will be the model to," follow,” he said.
Former Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, on the other hand, promoted the creation of counties as a solution to municipalities' economic precariousness.
Questioned about what will happen with Law 29 to reduce the administrative burdens of municipalities for the government's health plan and retirement system, Carrión and Jaresko said they are still having conversations with Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced and the mayors in search of options.
Law 29 exempts municipalities from the contribution to the health plan and the so-called PayGo system. But the Board sued the government because they understand that the statute is incompatible with the certified fiscal plan and that there were no funds allocated to finance the measure. "We're still in court. We are still talking with the governor and mayors to find an alternative solution that is consistent with the fiscal plan," Jaresko said.
Municipalities count on Law 29 to keep their finances afloat. If they can´t identify new sources of funding, most of them will soon become insolvent.
Aibonito Mayor William Alicea Pérez said Law 29 "greatly impacts municipalities. We have had to limit services and sometimes we even had to delay them," he said.
He also stressed that consortiums inject funds to municipalities. The ABC Consortium brings over $300,000 annually to Aibonito. "In our municipality, along with Barranquitas and Comerio, we created this partnership to improve the permitting process and this has allowed, to a great extent, to develop some economic activities in our municipality," said the mayor.
SEC and Education
On the other hand, Jaresko said she has not yet received the request for budget reconsideration from State Elections Commission's, which needs $131,796 for the November 10 special election and nearly $25.1 million for next year's primary elections.
Neither has the Board received a letter or formal communication from Education asking the entity to become the department´s trustee.
Jaresko said that in recent days, Education issued a Request for Proposals for a trustee. The announcement contrasts with the Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez´s statements, who said they would like the Board to be the trustee before the federal Education Department. The federal agency's request is keeping $1.535 billion frozen.
"They (Education) haven't asked us," Jaresko said to questions about a formal request in line with Hernández Pérez's expressions.