Puerto Rico’s Water War… Acevedos’ Apparent Win Ushers In Split Government

by John Marino

December 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. With a final offer on the table, a plan to begin replacing striking workers on Monday and federal and local investigations hanging over the leadership of the Independent Authentic Union, the Calderón administration has a strong hand with which to deal with the labor unrest at the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.

It needs to use it to set the troubled water utility, recently returned to government hands after 10 years of management by private industry, on a future course that will return it to solid footing. That's the case regardless of the impact such a move will have on the short-term crisis at the agency spurred by the 80-day-old strike of 4,300 of its employees.

ASA President Jorge Rodríguez has shown resolve to hold the line on a final offer that would grant $100 monthly pay raises each year to the union during the three-year life of the proposed contract -- exactly what other government employees have received under Calderón. And he has rightly insisted on ‘take-backs’ of out-of-control benefits the union has been granted by politicians trying to curry favor with big labor over the years.

But there have also been backdoor negotiations with the union through a dialogue committee established by La Fortaleza this week comprised of government and labor representatives not directly involved in the ASA strike.

For the greatest common good, Rodríguez, and his boss, Gov. Calderón, must try to resolve the strike without bending on these issues. ASA is hemorrhaging to the tune of $200 million a year, and Puerto Rico's taxpayers are footing the bill for the utility. Not only is ASA a financial drain on the commonwealth government, shoddy service and a deteriorated sewage and water infrastructure are a damper on development and an added burden on private industry. It also impacts the quality of life of all Puerto Ricans.

Outrageous union benefits and Byzantine restrictions on job classifications and worker scheduling are a big part of the reason why the water utility is such a mess. The Calderón administration should certainly seek an agreeable end to the conflict through its committee, but the "dialogue’ should not be used to give in on its attempts to rein in the expense and power of ASA’s main union.

Two global water giants made improvements at the utility over a course of 10 years but were unable to turn it around definitively. The IAU is a big part of the reason why. Now that the utility is back in government hands, it is absolutely essential that the commonwealth now do so.

This could just be Puerto Rico’s real "Waterloo". Political leaders, and politics, are responsible for the outrageous benefits and other perks granted the union over the years. Ditto for the lack of maintenance and capital investment at the water utility. The government has also been unwilling to take unpopular but necessary moves such as charging for water the true cost of producing it, rather than having the public pay more through higher taxes paid to cover ASA budget deficits.

There is ample reason to be skeptical of the chances the government has of transforming ASA, given the fact that decades of commonwealth management has cast it into its current seemingly irreparable state. Yet, a convergence of circumstances is also setting the stage where bold actions by politicians to attempt a turnaround seem possible.

The biggest factor is that that the general public appears squarely against the strike and unsympathetic to union demands. That's because we are all unsatisfied ASA customers, used to frequent water interruptions, neighborhood sewage backups and long waits for service.

Of course the local charges of tax evasion hanging over top IAU leaders, and a federal investigation into alleged mismanagement of health plan funds, is also having an effect on public opinion. So did a rash of protests during the strike that inconvenienced thousands by blocking major thoroughfares and snarling traffic.

And taxpayers, many working in private industry where concepts like guaranteed pay raises and extravagant benefits are non-existent, are acutely aware that sheer economics curtails the government from giving into union demands.

The commonwealth government's hand has also been strengthened by the chaotic political situation, with the governor's race still undecided (until this week anyway), leaving the union no clear target to start working on for a resolution to the labor conflict. Gov. Calderón's lame-duck status, with no worry about seeking reelection or governing after January, is also an advantage, giving her more freedom to take tough stances.

Keeping the tough line Rodríguez has struck, with a final offer on the table and a threat to begin replacing workers, would be a high note upon which to leave office. It also could be a real contribution to the Calderón legacy and ad luster to her reputation as a sound administrator, which has been somewhat tarnished during her four years in office.

Acevedos’ Apparent Win Ushers In Split Government

There are still some 2,000 votes left to count, but with a lead of over 3,228 votes, Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá appears to have won the race for governor.

The recount "ended" Thursday night except for a few suitcases of disputed ballots from a Caguas polling station, but State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia said only a "miracle" would change the result.

New Progressive Party President Pedro Rosselló, however, has yet to concede defeat, and NPP officials are still mulling a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the disputed pivazo ballots, in which voters marked an X below the Puerto Rican Independence Party insignia, and beside the names of Acevedo Vilá and his PDP running mate Roberto Prats.

NPP lawyers called the decision to adjudicate such votes a "quintessential form of vote dilution" by giving more weight and significance to some votes than others. They have 10 days after Acevedo Vilá is certified to appeal.

Meanwhile, the recount handed a reelection victory to PDP Sen. Cirilio Tirado, taking the ability of the NPP Senate delegation on its own to override a governor‚s veto. Tirado won by just 42 votes over NPP rival Osvaldo Ortolaza.

Now the NPP will need a Puerto Rican Independence Party senator or a defecting PDP senator in order to override a gubernatorial veto, something that has never occurred before in island history.

Speaking at a victory party Thursday night, Acevedo Vilá said that Puerto Ricans could "now feel secure in their future."

The 42-year-old PDP candidate will have to govern with La Fortaleza as his sole power base. The NPP controls both house of the Legislature, a majority of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, and the resident commissioner‚s post.

It‚s the first time in island history that voters choose a Congressional representative from a different party than the gubernatorial candidate they elected. Many observers see the next four years as mired in gridlock and political bickering, but others are hopeful that a split government may force the leadership of both major parties to begin to work more in consensus than in the past. Rosselló continues to deny speculation that he will take up a leadership post in the island Legislature, but says he will stay on as NPP president and oversee that the party's campaign platform.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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