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On Decentralization IV


August 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Decentralization is a strategy for a more participatory democracy and a more effective government. During my last term as governor (1989-1992), I was convinced that the central government, as we know it, no longer worked in Puerto Rico and that reinvention was needed to bring about the effective governance –from the bottom up–required in the new economic and technological world order. The Law for Autonomous Municipalities (Law 81 of 1991) was an important response–not the only one required–to this situation.

In my previous columns in this series, I focused on the delegation of powers over land use and planning, the most important aspect of decentralization to the municipal level. I now turn to other provisions in Law 81 that may be used to pass other central-government powers to the municipalities.

Central-government departments, agencies, or public corporations may delegate to the municipalities any of their powers so that these may carry out any activities, provide any services, implement any programs, carry out any public works, or implement any laws or regulations.

The following conditions must be met so the powers may be delegated:

  • The municipality must commit to exercise the delegated powers in accordance with established public policy and legal provisions governing such power.
  • A determination must be made by the governor that the delegation will expedite or otherwise improve the exercise of the function delegated at a cost equal to or less than that incurred by the delegating agency.
  • The municipality must have the necessary staffing and operational efficiency to exercise such power.
  • The delegated power may be exercised only within the geographical jurisdiction of the municipality.
  • The municipality must implement and verify compliance with delegated regulations in accordance with the policies established by the delegating agency.
  • The delegating agency must provide for the municipalities’ uniform execution of the powers it has delegated to them.

To obtain the delegation of whichever powers it desires, the municipality must submit to the governor a petition that will be referred to the central-government agencies concerned. Upon the agencies’ evaluation of and report on the petition, the governor will decide whether to go ahead with the delegation. If the governor decides to do so, he or she will enter on behalf of the central government into a compact with the municipality.

This compact will specify the delegated powers, the conditions under which they will be exercised, the period of time during which they will be delegated (they may be delegated indefinitely), and the employees, funds, property, and other resources that will be transferred to the municipality so it may exercise the delegated powers. If the conditions are violated, the central government may take legal action to annul the compact and revert the delegated powers.

These provisions establish public policy on the delegation of powers and provide the mechanisms for carrying out such delegation, but they don’t operate automatically. Mayors must seek delegation, and governors must be willing to grant it. A certain timidity or unwillingness to assume new responsibilities on the part of most mayors and a centralist culture on the part of the commonwealth government have limited these delegations considerably.

Rafael "Churumba" Cordero and Ramon Luis Rivera weren’t timid mayors. Nor are Jose Aponte or Willie Miranda Marin. Neither was I as governor when it came to delegating powers to our municipalities. As an example of how far we went, let’s examine the Ponce delegations, because Ponce is the most autonomous of our municipalities.

Delegations to Ponce were of two types: one, those concerned with the permitting process regarding building or developments (urbanizaciones); second, those of a general nature not related to this permitting process. All of the central-government agencies participating in the permitting process delegated their permitting-related powers to Ponce for its exercise locally. To do this, each of the agencies appointed an employee to the Centro de Gestion Unica of the municipality of Ponce.

This was a one-stop shop created by executive order (OE-1990-52) for the municipality at Luna and Marina streets in Ponce, one block from the mayor’s office. It was composed of the 18 central-government agencies related to the permitting process, all of which delegated to their regional directors and/or appointed employees at the one-stop shop full power to make endorsements.

When this one-stop shop was established, the time and hassle involved in obtaining permits were considerably reduced because the power to grant all permits, except those regarding projects of a regional nature, had been delegated to officials operating within the municipality.

Delegations unrelated to building or developmental permits were also quite substantial: The Department of Natural & Environmental Resources delegated its powers under the laws of forestry; mining for gravel, stone, and other noneconomic minerals; and maritime zone, including franchises for its use; the cleaning and maintenance of beaches; and the restoration, maintenance, and use of the historic lighthouse in Caja de Muertos, the offshore island to the south of Ponce within the jurisdiction of the municipality.

The Puerto Rico Police Department delegated to the municipality all of its powers over the implementation of the Law of Motor Vehicles & Transit, to be exercised concurrently through the municipal police. The Department of Transportation & Public Works also delegated its powers under the same law regarding the regulation of transit, the installation of traffic lights and signals, and the control of traffic on all state and local roads within the municipality, as well as the maintenance and landscaping of such roads. Toward this end, the department transferred to the municipality the necessary personnel, equipment, properties, and an annual amount of $285,925.

The Department of Consumer Affairs delegated the powers to authorize facilities for student boarding, parking lots, and buildings, including the tariffs to be paid for parking and the power to regulate charges for licenses issued under delegated powers.

The Department of Housing delegated powers over urban-renewal programs and the rehabilitation of deteriorated structures, including onsite rehabilitation. The necessary funds for the rehabilitation of several special communities–Cerro San Tomas, Alfonso XII, La Playa, Puerto Viejo, Las Bocas, Salistral, Los Pabellones, San Felipe, Arenas, and Betances–were transferred to the municipality along with the delegation of powers.

The Department of Sports & Recreation transferred to Ponce its powers to operate and maintain all of its recreational and ports facilities within the municipality and the power to issue permits for the use of these facilities by private parties. The resources needed by the municipality to exercise these powers were also transferred.

These delegations to Ponce, which have resulted in more-effective governance, mark the direction in which the delegation of powers from the central government to the municipalities should go. But we should go much further. A complete revision of the functions of each agency of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is in order to determine which can be exercised more efficiently and more cost effectively at the municipal level. This revision should provide the framework for a vigorous decentralization program, which should be undertaken by the next governor of Puerto Rico.

Rafael Hernandez Colon is a three-term (12 year) former governor of Puerto Rico (1973-76 and 1985-92). He had earlier served as secretary of Justice (1965-67) and as president of the Senate (1969-72). He was president of the Popular Democratic Party for 19 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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