DOC DIRECTOR: CREDIT REVIEW TO QUALIFY FOR LOANS NOT IN OUR BEST INTEREST
Local businessman and long time professional financial advisor Keniseli Fa’alupe Lafaele was yesterday confirmed by the Fono as the new director of the Commerce Department. The Senate voted 12-2 in the affirmative, while the House confirmed him in a 12-7 vote.
Lafaele holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from George Washington University and a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. In the past five years he has provided financial planning services to the public as an independent financial advisor.
Lafaele appeared before the House Committee on Commerce and Retirement chaired by Rep. Fagasoaia Lealaitafea for his confirmation hearing.
Notable among his confirmation hearing remarks, is Lafaele’s belief that the single most lingering problem facing local small business owners or prospective business owners is financing. To stimulate the growth of the local economy, he said rules must be relaxed by the Development Bank of American Samoa — allowing for local people with compromised credit histories to still qualify for loans.
Lafaele said having only two commercial banks here makes it difficult for business owners to obtain the necessary capital to start up a business. He referred to DBAS and said it has very stringent requirements and in his opinion, this should not be the case.
“Who doesn’t have this problem in the territory?” Lafaele asked, adding that in order to develop the local economy, this is something that needs to be done. He reiterated his point of view later when referring to help needed from the local government to help small businesses, saying he spoke to the (acting) DBAS president earlier this week about removing the review of credit history as a criteria for loan applications from Samoan business people.
He said reports from credit bureaus, which is what all banks use as one of the basis for approving a loan application, should not be considered because there are a lot of Samoans with bad credit history. He said small business owners should be led from point A to point B so they can move in the right direction and in doing that, the business owners will be diligent in paying their loans.
(During Lafaela’s remarks on bad credit history, Samoa News observed many of the faipule nodding their heads.)
The Vice Speaker also referred to last year’s budget where DBAS requested $100K to be allocated to assist the bank. He told Lafaele that he would like DOC to submit a similar request to the Fono to be allocated to help small businesses.
Another issue of interest was Lafaele’s response to a concern from Rep. Vaetasi Tuumolimoli Moliga about the increasing number of foreign business owners operating sewing shops and grocery stores in the territory. He urged Lafaele to look into the matter, as he knows there is a lot of money involved as far as taxes and remittances. “There are laws,” Vaetasi said. “Taxes should be paid.”
Lafaele explained that about forty years ago, the local business scene was booming. But nowadays, there are hardly any Samoan-owned businesses. He said that is why he decided to move from the private sector and take on this nomination, so he can contribute to Samoan businesses and the local economy.
Other issues discussed were the business license process and evaluating employees’ performances and qualifications to make sure they’re in the right job.
During his Senate Economic Development Committee confirmation hearing, Sen. Mauga T. Asuega asked about the status of the Territorial Planning Commission, which the senator said plays a vital role in economic development, but there has been no official word from the government about the TPC.
Lafaele said the governor is working on new names for submission to the Fono for the TPC, which has an important role in economic development, but to his understanding, it’s not active at this point.
Mauga told Lafaele that economic development as well as the private sector are the backbone of a country’s economy, which should be his priority if fully confirmed by the Fono.
He said DOC needs to be a better job in serving the public than in past years. He also said that the DOC, as the agency dealing with the issuance of business licenses, needs to fully review applications of new businesses because there are a lot of Asian operated stores in the territory and most of the employees are Asians, while there are many unemployed local Samoans. And if Samoans are employed, they work manual labor, he said.
Sen. Soliai Tuipine agreed that DOC should fully review business license applications, especially the owners to ensure that the owner is of Samoan ancestry with more than 50% Samoan blood as cited by the law. He also said many of these Asian operated businesses — such as the many sewing shops on island — are controlled from off-island, competing with locally owned businesses.
Sen. Faumuina Tagisiaali’i said the government is in need of additional revenue and suggested that DOC look at reviving the sales tax, which is a fair tax wherein everyone pays their fair share.
Since 1997, at least four separate pieces of legislation to re-implement a 3% sales tax failed to make it out of committee, and were automatically defeated. Also over the last ten-years, there were suggestions in the Fono to restart the sales tax but to no available because the major concern voiced by the government is that the collection of such a tax is burdensome and ASG lacks sufficient staff and funds to fully enforce such a law.
In March of 2011, the Fono approved a Senate Concurrent Resolution requesting then Gov. Togiola Tulafono to direct the Treasurer to conduct a feasibility study for the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a local sales tax system instead of the current excise tax system.
However Togiola said on his radio program that a sales tax would be too expensive for the government to collect, which was the problem incurred years ago when such a tax was in place and later repealed. He said the government at the time ended up using 50% of the revenues raised for enforcement of the tax.
During yesterday’s confirmation hearing, the issue of “price control”, or the government setting the cost of goods in the territory was raised. At least two senators said that prices of goods at Asian stores keep going up every week.
Lafaele said DOC needs to review this matter so it does not conflict with any provision of the law dealing with free-enterprise. He did point out that there is a law against “price gouging”, —a practice which occurs when businesses hike the cost of goods following an “emergency declaration” for the territory due to a disaster.
Faumuina, who in past years was involved in the private sector, says that this was an issue that was discussed many years ago during the early days of the local Chamber of Commerce, who noted at that time that the private sector is based on competition and free enterprise.
More in future editions of Samoa News on other issues raised by the Senate during this hearing.
Samoa News understands that by default, if the TPC is inactive or unavailable to carry out its duties, the director of DOC may act in its stead. In this case, the director would be the one to sign off on new business licenses. Fiu Johnny Saelua, Chief of Staff for Gov. Lolo M. Moliga, was the last chairman of the TPC.