Since the passage of Hurricane Maria, tens of thousands of Ponceños have waited patiently and impatiently for the announced reconstruction of their city.
The response, however, has been limited to press releases, media conferences and photomontages by Mayor María Meléndez Altieri, who, together with contractors, has posed to sign the design contracts for the so-called “priority projects”.
The euphoric speech of the city council, even, contrasts with the galloping deterioration of the affected public infrastructure, which includes municipal buildings, sports facilities, recreational parks and community centers, abandoned for years.
Even so, weeks before the 2020 general elections and with projections of a closed electoral contest, the mayor has once again proclaimed the “beginning” of the reconstruction of Ponce.
In an official press release issued on September 7, Meléndez Altieri announced 75 projects for the repair of indoor courts, ball parks, courts, community centers and some public roads, which will be financed with $ 3 million from the Federal Agency for Disaster Management (FEMA).
Most of these facilities – also deteriorated due to lack of maintenance of the city council itself – will have to be renovated in less than 60 days, just in time for the general elections in November.
“Three years have passed and a nail has not been put here,” said Justiniano Díaz Maldonado, spokesman for the Puerto Rican Independence Party in the Ponce Municipal Legislature, reacting to the announcement.
“Now the mayor is racing against the clock, to see if she can save her worn political image. From afar you can see how this is part of her political campaign. It is trying to award itself works that it has not done in 12 years, “she continued.
In her statement, the municipal executive even alludes that this week she will begin an intense campaign of visits to communities to speak on federal reconstruction projects.
“With our team for the reconstruction of Ponce we are going to visit all the places where the work will begin to explain to the people of Ponce what each project consists of and where it will be carried out,” reads a quote from the mayor.
“It is important that the people of Ponce are not hypnotized by the songs of sirens,” added Díaz Maldonado. “We have all seen the failure of the mayor and what she has not done in 12 years, she will not do in two months.”
“Priority projects” by dropper
The projects announced last week, however, do not include the famous “priority projects” that Meléndez Altieri also announced in February 2019.
These 19 works focus on the rehabilitation of recreational and tourist facilities that the city council neglected for years and whose poor condition worsened in September 2017 with the passage of Hurricane María.
These include the La Perla Theater, the Víctor Vassallo Pool, the Julio Enrique Monagas Park, the La Guancha Recreation Complex, the Ponce Servicios building, the Los Caobos Sports Center, the Enrique González de La Playa Passive Park, the Mariana Suárez de Longo Library , the Juan “Pachín” Vicéns Auditorium and the Francisco “Paquito” Montaner Stadium.
However, 19 months after the mayor announced them, none have started.
Although they were classified as “priority” in February 2019, it was not until September of that year that the administration formalized the contracts for the initial stage of pre-design studies.
For this, the mayor starred in another press conference in the Antiguo Casino de Ponce on September 19, 2019. There and before the cameras, the entrepreneurs selected to manage the studies and preliminary designs paraded individually, prior to signing their contracts paid with funds federal. Later, they posed for photos with Meléndez Altieri.
Even so, it was not until last July that the contracts for the design of the first 10 of the 19 works promised by the mayor’s office were signed.
Although the final cost of the “priority projects” is estimated to exceed $ 18 million, as of press time only contracts for $ 2.1 million have been awarded. All for studies and designs.
However, three years after the Hurricane Maria disaster, no date has yet been set for the beginning of the rehabilitation of the main municipal facilities affected by the phenomenon.
The “rebuilding team” is full of hands
This has not prevented two of the key figures in the mayor’s “reconstruction team” from continuing to bill in full for their efforts.
In fact, the amount of the contracts awarded by Meléndez Altieri to the engineer Carlos Ignacio Pesquera Morales and the former deputy mayor of Guaynabo, Aurialis Lozada Centeno, far exceeds what has been invested so far in the reconstruction “priority projects”.
In the case of the former president of the New Progressive Party, his company Capital Improvements Program Management (CIPM) has received at least 16 contracts and amendments for the sum of $ 1,697,125, since December 2017.
His tasks include “project management”, “damage inspections” and “preparation of technical documents”, among others.
For his part, Lozada Centeno, through his company ALC Legal Services Group, has secured another 13 contracts totaling $ 2,437,755. The two most recent contracts correspond to June 30 for $ 579 thousand and $ 134,850.
His responsibilities include “technical assistance”, “project management”, and “request for federal funds.”
In total, these Meléndez Altieri campaign donors and collaborators have carried over $ 4.1 million during the post-Maria rebuilding process.
“What the Fisheries Engineer and the lawyer Lozada Centeno have come is to fish for the funds that the Municipality of Ponce is receiving,” said Díaz Maldonado.
“This has only been a reconstruction on paper,” he said.