The reduction in government employees is hampering the capability of the Puerto Rico Citizen Ombudsman’s Office’s and that of government agencies themselves to speedily resolve complaints filed by citizens, said the second-in-command at the agency charged with representing the interests of the public.
According to Deputy Ombudsman Héctor A. Morales Martinez, complaints filed by citizens can take longer to investigate and resolve because the government agencies against which these grievances are lodged have fewer employees on hand to handle all the paperwork necessary to settle cases.
A recent economic report issued by Banco Popular noted that over the past five years Puerto Rico’s public payroll contracted nearly 20 percent due to government belt tightening.
The situation is so bad that his agency has resorted, on occasion, to deploying its own staffers to lend a hand at agencies like the Department of Education and the Police Department in such matters as looking up actual case files, said Morales in an interview.
This level of cooperation reflects the good working relationship the Ombudsman’s Office has with its fellow agencies, which as he described, are generally cooperative in the complaints resolution process.
In fact, the Ombudsman’s Office is planning to create an awards program as an incentive to stimulate agencies to do an even better job at resolving consumer complaints and, while the details are still sketchy, Morales said his office is now in the process of determining the criteria to be used in selecting winners. The program should begin sometime next year, he said.
Some citizens might view the Ombudsman’s Office as merely an entity dedicated to handling complaints over the performance of government agencies but actually its scope of involvement is far wider, encompassing not merely bad administration but also the violation of rights.
To familiarize citizens with their rights, the Ombudsman’s Office intends to hold a fair next year, probably at the end of April or the beginning of May, to raise public awareness and inform people about how the agency can help.
Ombudsman Iris Myriam Ruiz Class was recently selected to head a committee on human trafficking within the Federation of Ibero-American Ombudsman (FIO by its Spanish acronym) so Morales expects that his office will be doing more work related to this area. FIO is “a forum for the cooperation, exchange of experiences and promotion, dissemination and strengthening of the Ombudsman figure.”The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is among the top three agencies receiving the most complaints at the Ombudsman’s Office. (Credit: © Mauricio Pascual)
In the six months of the current government fiscal year, the Ombudsman’s Office has received a total of 11,786 cases, most of which or 7,078 were requests for orientation.
There were plenty of complaints too with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, and the Administration for the Government Employees and Judicial Retirement System heading the list of agencies that have incurred the public’s displeasure.
In fact, nearly half of the complaints filed at the Ombudsman’s Office during the first half of the government’s current Fiscal 2014 involved these three agencies.
PREPA topped the list with a total of 636 complaints. Next came PRASA with 459 complaints, followed by the Employees Retirement System with 292 complaints.
The 1,387 complaints lodged against all three agencies made up 46 percent of the 2,987 complaints filed to date with the Ombudsman. Other agencies receiving complaints included the Department of Education, the Police Department, the State Insurance Fund Corp., the Treasury Department, the Department of Transportation and Public Works, the Families and Children Administration, and the Corrections Administration. Education, Police and State Insurance Fund received 287, 249 and 207 complaints, respectively.
The high number of complaints filed against the island’s two government-owned utilities often involve wrong billings or unfair payments. Morales said while complaints are for the most part legitimate, there are cases where not only the complaint has no validity, but the consumer is found to have an illegal connection. In cases where the consumer’s claim is found to be wrong and a payment needs to be made, the Ombudsman’s Office will arrange for a payment plan, if necessary.
Complaints filed against agencies such agencies as Education or the Police often involve employee grievances regarding unpaid salaries, problems with job classifications, delays in receiving documentation requests. Law 70, enacted under Gov. Luis Fortuño to provide government employees an early retirement window and Law 3 of 2013, which adopted a comprehensive reform of the Employees Retirement System have given rise to many complaints against the administration that operates the retirement system, Morales said.
Complaints filed by businesses or individuals against the Treasury Department might involve issues such as discrepancies over tax liability calculations, late tax refunds, and permits.
Created in 1977, the Ombudsman’s Office operates on a budget of around $5 million, which covers the salaries of 82 employees and the operational cost of running seven offices islandwide, including the agency’s elegant headquarters in Hato Rey’s Mercantil Plaza building.