HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan told El Nuevo Día that the government of Puerto Rico is still in the process of establishing a program for the financial management of disaster relief funds to guarantee that the money reaches the people who need it the most.
Sullivan said that HUD is cooperating with the government of Puerto Rico in developing the infrastructure necessary – personnel and information systems – to manage the funds. “We hope they do it as soon as possible,” he said.
Although HUD Secretary Ben Carson visited Puerto Rico last September 20 – on the first anniversary of Hurricane María – to announce the approval of the $ 1.5 billion action plan for the nearly $ 20 billion that were allocated to the island in CDBG-DR funds, the funds have not been released yet.
“There are some procedures we have to follow to properly implement the programs, that is, the purchase of equipment or information systems, the integration of information systems to existing ones,” said the Puerto Rico Secretary of Housing Fernando Gil Enseñat.
According to Gil Enseñat, the programs proposed in the action plan for the first $ 1.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds could start in February or March 2019. The funds would be used, among other things, to repair homes, relocate communities, help people with mortgages and boost economic development.
The Puerto Rico Housing Department is also working on a plan for the second part of the CDBG-DR funds, which is around $ 8.285 billion.
Delays in the disbursement of CDBG-DR funds join those already reported by Governor Ricardo Rosselló in reconstruction programs through FEMA.
And they appear amid reports from Axios on President Donald Trump instructions not to approve new disaster relief funding for Puerto Rico and to impose obstacles to access funds. Two sources said to have heard about this issue.
However, Jennifer González, Resident Commissioner in Washington, said yesterday that last Thursday federal officials denied that a White House order to hinder the access to federal funds. “The answer I received is that this is not correct,” González said.
The White House has never publicly denied Axios’ report.
Last Thursday there was a meeting with Republican lawmakers from states that have recently faced natural disasters and representatives from HUD, the Treasury, FEMA, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
“We have concerns regarding how slow the disbursement has been,” said Commissioner González, noting that the island is not the only one questioning the delay in the release of relief funds.
On December 7, one day after the meeting, González and 13 Republican lawmakers – including majority´s number three, Steve Scalise (Louisiana) – sent a letter to OMB Director, Mick Mulvaney; HUD Secretary, Ben Carson; FEMA Administrator, Brock Long; and SBA Administrator Linda McMahon, expressing concern about restricting the access to funds to victims who have requested assistance from various programs.
Lawmakers recalled that a recent law repealed another statute that prevented the duplication of federal disaster relief assistance, that is, that a possible SBA loan to repair a home could block HUD assistance.
At the meeting, HUD announced that following the new law – which seeks to facilitate federal assistance when there is a request to multiple agencies – that they intend to issue new guidelines on the use of CDBG-DR funds early in 2019. Although the meeting focused on the issue of duplication of federal assistance, the letter also mentioned delays in CDBG-DR funds.
They stated that although they strongly agree that HUD must ensure that taxpayers’ money is protected from misuse, fraud and abuse, they believe that they should take measures to resolve the problem.
On the other hand, Commissioner González said that, at last week’s meeting, no official suggested that the Trump administration is seeking a greater role for the Oversight Board – that controls the island’s public finances – in the oversight of emergency funds.