Within hours of concluding her mandate, former mayor María Meléndez Altieri dedicated one of her last official procedures last Saturday to safeguarding the economic interests of her closest collaborators.
Outside working hours and without notifying the incoming administration, the official authorized the disbursement of $ 539,593 in public funds for the liquidations of vacations and sick days of her trusted employees.
As La Perla del Sur announced two weeks ago, the outgoing administration managed the payment in a hurry, on a preferential basis, and despite warnings about the potential insufficiency of funds that it would cause in the municipal coffers, days before a transition.
The transaction was described as “irresponsible” by the new mayor of Ponce, Luis Irizarry Pabón, after acknowledging that the large disbursement undermines the ability to meet the January 15 payroll on time.
After 12 years in command of the Municipal Government, Meléndez Altieri delivered the city council with an operational deficit of $ 78 million, long-term debts of $ 287 million, $ 86 million in unfulfilled payment commitments with suppliers and a budget overestimated by more than $ 20 million, according to the official transition report.
“We were not given any notice or report from the outgoing administration. We realized today (Monday) when the basic measures for the January 15 payroll are being carried out, ”said Irizarry Pabón.
“The bank notifies us that there was a process on Saturday, where a payroll of settlements for the outgoing managers was worked. At no time did they inform us that they were going to take this action, “he continued.
“The incoming transition committee made a request to the mayor and the outgoing committee about this situation, but we never received a response,” he stressed. “Now we see the need to react urgently so that our regular employees are not affected.”
Among the officials of close trust to whom the former mayor paid settlements, the former director of Planning and Development, Cándida León Ribas, stands out, who allegedly accumulated benefits for $ 60,962.
Also the right hand of the former mayor, Jessica Nieves Soto, who claimed $ 45,721, eighteen months after receiving another $ 23,343 for the same concept.
The list also includes the director of the Citizen Aid Office, Omayra Colón Pérez, with $ 41,149, and the administrative manager in Municipal Education, Carmen Bravo Ramírez, to whom they paid $ 31,460.
“This does not surprise me at all, because that was the modus operandi of that administration for 12 years,” said the former mayor of Ponce, Francisco Zayas Seijo. “These people waited until the last day to do this.”
“Everyone knows that Ponce has a monstrous deficit and you just paid a Christmas bonus, which went up to $ 600, which cost the municipality about $ 700 thousand more (of its budget). Now you add more than half a million in liquidations, which are taken just when they leave, “he continued.
“What they leave behind is a real disaster,” added the former mayor.
Also the $ 100 thousand to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office
On the other hand, Irizarry Pabón confirmed that last Friday, January 8, the outgoing administration also disbursed another $ 100,000 in public funds for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, as part of an out-of-court agreement with the former mayor, which they have described as “confidential.”
The arrangement was ratified by the New Progressive majority in the Municipal Legislature on December 28, without offering an explanation, or rendering accounts to the public, on the violations attributed to the Meléndez Altieri administration.
However, when asked by La Perla del Sur, the new mayor of Ponce also did not offer explanations about the controversial disbursement of public funds.
“I had been informed preliminarily, in a brief way, that it was a confidential agreement where I had to submit to the confidentiality of not giving information,” he said.
“I cannot give details, because I am under the effects of that confidentiality and I was only informed somewhat superficially of what was happening. At the moment, I cannot give you more information, ”he insisted.
Similar expressions were offered to the director of the WPAB 550 Radio News Department, José Elías Torres, in an interview released last Saturday.
Meanwhile, Zayas Seijo questioned why they insist on keeping secret an agreement with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, which was negotiated with public funds.
“When you go to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office to transact, there was a violation of the law. Obviously, there is an illegality here that we do not want to talk about, ”said the former mayor.
“I am surprised that the mayor (Irizarry Pabón) is accepting it. I don’t think I should accept it, ”he added, referring to the confidentiality agreement. “The people of Ponce have the right to know what their money is being spent on.”
Temporary employees will be left out
Lastly, Irizarry Pabón acknowledged that – given the current fiscal situation – service contracts cannot be renewed for a notable number of temporary employees, whose functions expire on Tuesday, January 12.
Under this category, the city council has about 400 workers. Although he was unable to provide precise figures, he estimated that about half of them could be affected.
“It must be remembered that as a result of the investigation I did from 2012 to 2016, it was found that more than 300 employees were hired, illegally. Many of those, 90 percent, had full time, contrary to the reduction in working hours that the former mayor imposed on regular employees, “he said.
“Those employees who are in high need will be hired and those who cannot be hired immediately will be evaluated and then see if they can be hired,” he concluded.