SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s governor pledged Monday to reduce taxes, raise pay for police officers and implement work requirements for those on welfare to help the U.S. territory recover from Hurricane Maria amid the island’s 11-year-old economic crisis.
The annual address by Gov. Ricardo Rossello lasted more than an hour and focused on crime, housing, labor, health and energy as anger and frustration grows across the island of 3.3 million people over an increase in crime and what many believe are slow hurricane-recovery efforts. More than 15 percent of power customers remain in the dark nearly six months after the Category 4 storm, and the Atlantic hurricane season begins in less than three months.
Rossello announced he would reduce a sales-and-use tax for processed food from 11.5 percent to 7 percent as well as lower taxes on individuals and corporations. He said he also plans to help secure property deeds for hurricane victims who didn’t have them and as a result could not obtain federal funding to repair their homes after the storm caused more than $100 billion in damage.
“It’s been a year of intense work, overcoming great challenges and difficulties,” Rossello said. “We all have lessons to learn from this hurricane experience with no precedence.”
He said his administration had to depend on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help restore power because of the government’s fiscal crisis and the lack of money at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is $9 billion in debt.
“We’ve stumbled greatly in this assignment,” said Rossello, who has repeatedly criticized the Corps’ work pace.
As he spoke, one legislator who represents a municipality south of the capital placed a sign on his desk that read, “Caguas wants power.”
The Corps has said that it is dealing in part with rough terrain and a lack of supplies and that it is moving as quickly as it can.
During his address, the governor recognized the widow of one of two police officers who died during the hurricane and a man who welcomed 47 neighbors seeking shelter inside his home, along with 30 pets.
Rossello said his administration has to learn how to better channel help from the private sector so it reaches hurricane survivors quicker. And he said the death count after the hurricane should have been more effective and accurate. He recently announced that experts at George Washington University are reviewing all deaths amid criticism that the official toll of 64 victims was extremely low.
The governor recognized the spike in violent crime during his address, saying he would reassign officers and consolidate police stations to fight an increase in killings. Authorities said 142 killings have been reported so far this year, compared with 121 last year in the same period.
Rossello said he would give all officers a $1,500 annual pay increase, buy nearly 300 patrol cars with updated technology and increase patrols across the island.
“We have started the year with an alarming increase in murders,” he said. “There is no magical solution for such a complex problem.”
In a meeting with some reporters before the address, Rossello said Puerto Rico needs to access a portion of the nearly $5 billion that Congress approved in October for states and territories affected by the hurricane.
“We have been waiting five months for that loan and it still has not been able to materialize,” he said, stressing several times during his address that statehood would lead to equal treatment for Puerto Rico in terms of federal funding.
Opposition legislators dismissed Rossello’s address as empty, with Denis Marquez of the Puerto Rican Independence Party noting the governor did not address the fiscal and economic crisis.
“They’re talking about how to decorate the Titanic when it’s sinking,” he said. “We should be tired already of this situation.”