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The 2012 ASPA budget: Fono and ASPA do battle

In a relationship that continues to be acrimonious at best, the Fono and the American Samoa Power Authority again did battle over the authority’s budget and its stand that the ASPA board has the authority under local statute to approve the semi autonomous agency’s annual budget.

In yesterday’s joint budget hearing for ASPA, several Fono members again disagreed, and also threw into the arena the issue of ASPA board members whose terms have expired.

Lawmakers are working on approving funding for ASPA for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2012.  Its FY 2012 budget was approved by the Fono for only four months, and expires at the end of this month.

The joint hearing began with nearly 30-minutes taken up with the issue of ASPA board members whose terms have expired. This issue was discussed after Sen. Fuata Dr. T. Iatala questioned Lemanu as to the status of ASPA board members.

Lemanu said there has been no other information received by the committee about new appointees to replace those members whose terms have expired but who are still serving on the board.

Sen. Mauga T. Asuega suggested seeking a legal opinion from the Fono legal counsel to resolve this issue once and for all.

There was a call from other senators to postpone the budget hearing until this issue is resolved, but the Fono leadership called for the hearing to continue. Gaoteote said the board does not need to testify during the budget hearing.

Board chairman Asaua Fuimaono and board member Va’a Sokelati were in the Senate gallery along with the ASPA management team listening to the exchange about board members.

In the end, the joint committee decided that only the ASPA management should be present during the hearing and thereafter Fuimaono and Sokelati left the Fono building.

American Samoa Power Authority chief executive officer Andra Samoa told lawmakers that she is saddened by this ongoing issue, because the law allows continuity of expired board members, until such time that the governor reappoints the same individuals or makes new appointments.

The budget hearing then began, with the issue of which budget is ASPA under law supposed to use — the one approved by their board or the one approved by the Fono — immediately raising its head.

Sen. Lemanu Peleti Mauga, chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee reminded lawmakers that the Fono during last year’s budget process approved only $30.86 million — which is 34% of ASPA’s FY 2011 approved budget of $90.78 million — to fund operations from October 2011 to January 2012.

Lemanu said the current review of the ASPA budget is to cover the last nine months of FY 2012 in the amount of just over $59 million.

However, ASPA’s first quarter performance report provided yesterday morning to the Fono shows that the entity was using a FY 2012 budget of $118.479 which was the budget proposal ASPA submitted to the ASG Budget Office for FY 2012. The biggest concern raised by the Fono last year was the fact that ASPA hadn’t used the $90.78 million approved budget in FY 2011 but instead used a $120 million budget for FY 2011.

At yesterday’s budget hearing, Samoa told the committee that its annual budget is based on “our interpretation” of a provision in Title 15 of the local law, which gives the ASPA board authority to approve its annual budget. She said the FY 2012 budget of $118.4 million was the one submitted to the ASG Budget Office for inclusion in the ASG FY 2012 budget.

Sen. Velega Savali Jr., chairman of the Senate ASPA/TEO Committee, said he has a real serious problem with Samoa’s statement of the board’s approval of the budget and the $118.4 million cited in the performance report.

He questioned whether it’s necessary to continue the budget review, and if so, is the Fono conducting the budget review based on budget figures used by ASPA or the budget law approved by the Fono? He said the only way to resolve the differences in the interpretation of the law is to take the matter to court.

Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie said it’s the Fono that sets the budget law not ASPA and asked the committee to continue this important hearing in order for lawmakers to fully understand what ASPA needs that, if legitimate, can be addressed later.

House Vice Speaker Talia Fa’afetai Iaulualo requested the joint budget committee to move forward with the $90 plus million FY 2012 budget approval, to include the remaining months of the current fiscal year and let’s see if ASPA will stick to this amount set by the Fono.

He said any other future issues can be resolved at a later time when they come up. He also requested to dismiss the ASPA witnesses.

House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale recommended to continue the hearing to, among other things, find out how ASPA spent the approved money in the first three months of the fiscal year.

Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli said ASPA must follow the budget passed by the Fono and signed into law by the governor. He said ASPA has insisted that it’s the board who approves its final budget but that is their own interpretation and this issue can be addressed later at the appropriate time.

“ASPA is becoming a monster,” said Galeai, adding that when ASPA was created as a semi-autonomous agency, it was to help the community in utility services, but that is no longer the case.

After other comments were made by lawmakers regarding the legality of ASPA using a budget not approved by the Fono and questions asked to ASPA officials, the joint committee opted to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss what the committee says are legal issues pertaining to ASPA budget. 

When the closed door hearing was held, ASPA officials had already been dismissed from the hearing, which is expected to continue today.