DHSS budget hearing raises the differences in directors' salaries, yet again
Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao yesterday implored lawmakers attending the Fono joint budget hearings for FY 2014 to refrain from questioning directors about their salaries — because they are set by the governor and in the budget document.
The latest urging from Laolagi came during yesterday’s review of the Department of Human and Social Services' budget, which shows the director’s salary at $65,000, which is $5,000 less than the $70,000 allocated during the last administration. (Lawmakers have a one-page Fono report outlining current and previous salaries of all executive branch cabinet directors.)
During the hearing, Rep. Florence Vaili Saulo asked DHSS director Taeaoafua Dr. Meki Solomona why his salary had been decreased from the previous director's pay.
Laolagi interjected saying this issue of directors' salaries has come up again and again since the budget hearings began last week. He said salaries of directors, who are gubernatorial appointees, are set by the governor and that is the governor’s decision.
The committee chairman pointed out the Fono does not have a say in the setting of these salaries and it's the directors who answer to the governor.
Saulo replied she wanted to have a better understanding behind the reduction. She also said the DHSS budget shows two deputy directors — one for Program & Services and the other for Finance & Administration.
Laolagi responded that this is not the only department with two deputies, adding that larger departments have two or three deputies — for example, the Education Department has three.
He then again urged committee members not to question cabinet members about their salaries and reiterated that this is a decision made by the governor.
DHSS BUDGET REVIEW
For FY 2014, DHSS’ total budget, which is 100% federally funded, is $22.95 million with 207 positions while FY 2013’s budget was $23.63 million with 178 positions. Rep. Atualevao Gafatasi Afalava sought information on the reason personnel will increase in the new fiscal year while there is a decrease in the total budget from FY 2013.
Taeaoafua says many of these positions have been there all these years and DHSS is trying to fill some of those vacancies following approval by the federal grantor. He also explained that most grants for the new next fiscal year are only estimates outlined in the budget and the actual amounts are not known until the grantee — in this case DHSS — gets the award.
Rep. Taotasi Archie Soliai asked a follow up question as to the actual amounts received in grants awarded for FY 2013 — was it an increase or a decrease compared to what was proposed for the fiscal year?
Taeaoafua, who has been in the post for eight months, responded the total actual amounts are not yet available for FY 2013 but the proposed FY 2014 budget is based on what DHSS has seen in FY 2013.
Asked by Taotasi for additional information on budget estimates versus actual grant award amounts, Budget and Planning Office director Catherine Aigamaua-Saelua says she believes the actual award amount will be very close to the “estimates” outlined in the budget.
Taotasi said his concern is that if the final award amount is less that the estimates, that means an approved budget is inflated. He said this is the same concern with other ASG entities getting federal grants, adding he is also concerned there is a federal sequestration on federal money which has been place since early this year.
Laolagi agreed with the concern, and said he is very hopeful that the administration will keep the Fono abreast if the awards are lower or higher than what’s estimated in the budget for all federally funded local departments and agencies.
Sen. Mauga T. Asuega called on the director to fully review and ensure that those who qualify for the American Samoa Nutrition Assistance Program (ASNAP) food voucher, program are the only ones who receive them. The senator’s statement was based on $6.84 million budget item, which is an increase of more than $240,000 from FY 2013 amount of $6.60 million.
The increase, according to the budget item, is due to the higher number of participants in this program, which provides nutritional assistance to eligible low-income, elderly, blind or disabled population of the territory.
Taeaoafua says he will “reserve” comments on this particular issue because he has been director for only eight months, adding this is among the many areas of review being carried out to ensure all those who qualify as participants are served.
DHSS third quarter performance report says the ASNAP enrolled an average of 4,584 recipients per month during the quarter — covering the period of Ap. 1 — June 30, 2013. During this quarter the program redeemed an average of $591, 292 in benefits each month.
Sen. Faumuina Tagisiaali’i shared with the director complaints he has received, alleging that DHSS favors Asian store vendors over Samoan owned stores, but Taeaoafua responded he has not received any complaints and believed this has not happened during his tenure.
“If you meet the requirements, you qualify” said Taeaoafua, who added he is open to discussing any such complaints brought to his attention. He says DHSS wants to make sure that all vendors who qualify, are given the chance.
In his closing remarks at the end of the hearing, Taeaoafua reiterated the need for his office to work together with the Fono and for lawmakers to share with him any public concerns and complaints regarding all of the services provided by DHSS.
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