Puerto Rico Crisis Poses Challenge to Concept of Free 1 comment

The Cabo Rojo lighthouse in southwest Puerto Rico dates to the 1700s. The town, known for its picturesque coast, was the first to implement a small fee for garbage collection. /Maria Padilla

Like the cookies that follow you around the internet after you’ve clicked on a website, the neon orange plastic garbage bags of Puerto Rico followed me around the island on a recent visit.

Starting with Cabo Rojo in southwest coastal Puerto Rico, island municipalities are rolling out a recycling and garbage initiative in response to deep cuts in subsidies from the central island government. Residents now must buy the orange garbage bags at about $1.75 a pop to get their solid waste picked up – or face escalating fines.

It’s the first time municipalities have charged for garbage pick-up, which used to be free, as so many things are – or used to be – in Puerto Rico until the $70 billion fiscal meltdown. Because my family is from Cabo Rojo, we got an earful about the neon-colored bags during a 10-day visit to the island.

“It’s not a lot to pay,” said one retired teacher. “But people in Puerto Rico have become accustomed to getting everything for free.”

Furloughs and Savings

A symbol of the island’s sobering circumstances, the bright bags also represent a growing number of fees for services that residents now must pay for, services that previously were free. Next up, government furloughs mandated by the ruling Fiscal Control Board to take effect September 1.

The congressionally appointed Fiscal Control Board, which rules over the island including over the governor and legislature, is asking for over $200 million in additional savings this fiscal year, which began July. Hence, thousands of central government workers may be “furloughed” two days a month without pay in a move the board calls “right-sizing measures.” In addition,, some government retirees may see a cut in their pensions since the trusts are underfunded by over $40 billion and running out of cash.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and others are calling for civil disobedience. “I am prepared to be arrested,” Rosselló announced.

Political Suicide

Because the central and municipal governments have been employers of last resort in Puerto Rico for decades, slashing government payroll is a surefire way of becoming a one-term governor, of which there have been four in the past 16 years – Sila Calderón, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, Luis Fortuño (who famously laid off about 17,000 workers) and Alejandro García Padilla.

It is a no-win situation and a no-win public display for voters’ sake, as TV commentator Jay Fonseca said. “Esto es un show,”  he said, likely to end in lawsuits costing scarce taxpayer dollars to try to avoid the inevitable.

Seizing the Moment

But even as the Rosselló administration rejects Fiscal Control Board measures, it’s seizing opportunities to push for long-sought economic reforms that unravel government ownership of cash-strapped public electric and water authorities, maritime systems, public schools and more.

The San Juan airport – the nation’s 43rd busiest, sandwiched between Sacramento and Fort Myers – was leased in 2009. And frankly, the facility is much improved.Jet Blue has a new terminal and many new shops and restaurants are open for business. The Margaritaville restaurant was packed with people, not parrot heads.

The cash crisis also is pushing the island’s 78 municipalities to partner. The Puerto Rico Senate quashed the idea of consolidating municipalities, a cowardly political act. No worries. They may disappear on their own, weighted down by debt and no cash. The mayors, however, are concerned about cuts to their $400 million annual central government subsidies. They are talking about consolidating municipal services, an idea whose time is way past due.

A municipal video explains the orange garbage bag concept.

Municipalities didn’t pay for electricity or water to government-owned utilities. Ever. Which helps explain the construction of water parks and other recreational amenities whose true costs were hidden. Now municipalities have to pay up. Which brings us back to the orange  plastic garbage bags.

Last June the town of Cabo Rojo held  three public hearings on the initiative. In one hearing a woman appeared to approve of the garbage measure but added, “Some people have more garbage than others and should pay more,” a novel concept. Based on these and other comments, residents pay only for as many garbage bags as they need, after recycling paper and plastic. The town estimates this comes to as little as three to four 15- to 30-gallon bags per month. 

“Remember, you are not buying a bag. You are buying a service,” the campaign stated. “The more you recycle, the fewer bags you’ll need.”

Still, tossing the decades-old concept of free is a hard sell for some Puerto Ricans.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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One thought on “Puerto Rico Crisis Poses Challenge to Concept of Free

  • Peter Troy

    “Tough love” it is called. The gravy train of goodies is over. What of the folks who are leaving? They are in for a rude awakening, I was just notified that my rate for pick-up is being increased. I pray it will be a case of, ” when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”