Puerto Rico pushes to privatize operation of public services

Puerto Rico is ready to sign dozens of new deals to privatize the operation of public services as government funds dwindle amid a decade-long recession, the island's governor told some 800 investors attending a two-day financial summit Thursday.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said public-private partnerships could create up to 100,000 new jobs and generate some $5 billion in the next three years for a U.S. territory mired in economic crisis and its government facing a $70 billion public debt load that it is struggling to restructure.

"We are not leaving things to chance," he said, noting that Puerto Rico has no access to capital markets. "We are building a government that recognizes we can't do everything."

Most public-private partnerships on the U.S. mainland involve transportation projects, but officials said the scope would be much wider in Puerto Rico and that the projects would not require legislative approval. The government hopes to privatize services including the operation and maintenance of several highways and the unreliable ferry service from Puerto Rico to the popular islands of Culebra and Vieques. Other projects would target waste management, student housing, parking and recreation facilities, information technology, renewable energy and natural gas projects.

"We've been so aggressive about this because we have no other option," said Omar Marrero, executive director of the Authority of Public-Private Partnerships. "Either we swim together, or we sink together."

Government officials have pledged that 25 percent of revenues from those deals will go to the island's crumbling public pension system that is underfunded by $40 billion and expected to run out of money this year.

Officials have identified at least 30 projects that would benefit from being run by a private company and said they would guarantee badly needed maintenance and upgrades the government cannot afford. Puerto Rico can no longer keep financing the bulk of the island's development, said Elias Sanchez, the government's representative to a federal control board overseeing the island's finances.

"It's just not viable," he said. "Our fiscal situation is so challenging that there's no way the government can be the lead in investments or projects ... That can only be led by the private sector."

It's been roughly four years since Puerto Rico last signed a deal to privatize the operation of public services without complete privatization. The previous governor signed a deal to privatize operations at Puerto Rico's main international airport and its busiest highway, a move that allowed a previous administration to eliminate 60 percent of the Ports Authority's debt and pay $1 billion worth of highway debt.

Government officials sought to ease any concerns about Puerto Rico's economic crisis by noting that the federal control board has to approve any projects, and that a financial package approved by U.S. Congress last year allows the government to award expedited permits to projects considered critical to the economy.