Fono Joint Budget Committee final work today

Fono News
fili@samoanews.com

After the 10a.m. regular sessions in both the Senate and House today, the Fono Joint Budget Committee will convene to start finalizing the language of the American Samoa Government’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget.

The joint committee was initially set to review it yesterday but unforeseen circumstance required another day for the co-chairs to move the review forward for one more day.

One amendment that is expected to be included in the final language is the $2 million in local matching funds for two airport projects funded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The amendment, approved by the committee hearing on Monday, will hike the total FY 2017 budget from the original submission amount of $378.48 million to $380.48 million.

It remains unclear at this point if the committee co-chairs, as well as lawmakers, will recommend cuts from budgets of other ASG agencies. Last year’s final budget review saw cuts in some of the projects funded under the Special Program budget category and the American Samoa Visitors Bureau.

Like last year’s review, there were many concerns during this year’s hearing for the Visitors Bureau budget especially with the salary and other benefits for the executive director. And as a result $51,000 was cut from the Visitors Bureau’s FY 2016 budget.

Long time political observers told Samoa News early this week that they won’t be surprised if the Visitors Bureau will once again “become the victim” of the Fono’s cuts.

LOCAL DISASTER FUND TO HELP VICTIMS NOT QUALIFIED FOR FEMA

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has again allocated $200,000 in the FY 2017 budget under the Special Program budget category in which these local funds will be used to cover damages caused by natural and man-made disasters not covered by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Lolo says that disasters often cause damages to many homes and communities in which American Samoa is not eligible for federal disaster assistance to cover for such damages.

And this funding allocation “will help provide some financial relief and support to affected families and communities given certain restrictions and requirements,” said Lolo who also allocated a similar amount in FY 2016, after the severe flooding and landslide in 2014 which caused an estimated damage of $5 million as well as the loss of one life.

However, American Samoa didn’t qualify for federal disaster assistance and some affected local residents were disappointed that there was no other financial support from the local government to help them recover.

The one major household loss during the disaster was the major landslide in Gataivai, damaging a church.

TAOA DIRECTOR EXPLAINS EMPLOYMENT OF SENIORS

During the Territorial Administration on Aging budget review for FY 2017, TAOA director Tifimalae Ale addressed the issue of senior citizens who are employed part-time by the agency under a federally funded program.

Ale explained that there are currently 200 seniors on the waiting list for the program, which allows seniors to work part-time for four years. Thereafter, others on the waiting list are placed on employment.

Asked by the committee if foreigners are allowed to be employed in the program, Ale said priority is for US citizens and US Nationals. However, he says there are foreigners who qualify for the program, such as those holding Immigration IDs valid for three years and individuals married to a US citizen or national.

According to the director, $1.3 million is allocated for the cooked food program while $975,500 for the employment program.

FONO PAYS TRIBUTE TO THE LATE HELGA LEFITI

The Fono has endorsed a House Concurrent Resolution, which conveys the deepest and sincere condolence of the Legislature and the people of American Samoa to the Lefiti family on the passing of Mrs. Helga Speck Lefiti.

The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Maugaoali’i L.S. Anoai, also pays tribute to her life and service to the people of American Samoa. The resolution was approved by the House last Friday and endorsed by the Senate on Tuesday. The Fono was in recess during Mrs. Lefiti’s funeral early last month and the resolution was presented to her family during the funeral service. Lawmakers have just now gone through the protocol of approving the resolution.

According to the resolution, American Samoa mourns the loss of one of its matriarchs who was known for her “determination and resilience in the face of adversity”. Born in Germany, Mrs. Lefiti was married to the late Lefiti Fa’afetaileauta Leilua Malolefoua.

FONO APPROVES IMMIGRATION BOARD QUORUM REQUIREMENT BILL

The Fono has approved, with a minor amendment, an Administration bill, which adjusts the quorum requirement for the Immigration Board. Under the proposed law, the quorum is reduced from 5 to 4 members.

The amendment made by the House last Friday and approved by the Senate on Monday, calls for the bill to become effective once endorsed by the Fono and signed into law by the governor.

ASG witnesses told lawmakers that the current quorum is difficult to garner and the reason for the bill. And Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga had informed lawmakers that it has become difficult to comply with the current quorum requirement and the inability to secure the necessary quorum has impeded the work of the Immigration board.

One of the reasons, which have surfaced in the community and has reached some House members, for the lack of a quorum is because there is a conflict between board members and this has resulted in some members not attending meetings.

And this same issue was raised by faipule during a House Immigration hearing last week where board chairman Moetulu’i Fuiava disputed such claims, saying that while there are difference of opinions raised during board meetings — it’s not conflicts or disputes among members.

Moetulu’i also said that the board didn’t face any difficulties in the past when there were only 5 board members and the quorum was 3, but ever since the law was changed in 2013 to increase the number to seven, it has been very difficult to get a quorum of five.

He said the Fono — one each from the Senate and House — sits on the board, and when the board convenes, the Fono is also in session making it difficult for the lawmakers to attend the board meeting to get a quorum.

The Senate approved the bill more than two weeks ago, and also offered a recommendation to the administration, to replace board members who don’t show up at meetings with new people, who are committed to their work.

INDUSTRIAL PARK LEASES CURRENT FOR TENANTS

The long standing concerns over the years of many tenants in arrears of their lease payments at the Tafuna Industrial Park has improved, according to Commerce Department director Keniseli Lafaele when questioned by lawmakers during the DOC’s proposal fiscal year 2017 budget, which shows that for the industrial park there are 20 employees with a $700,000 FY 2017 budget compared to about 17 employees with a $670,000 budget in FY 2016.

Sen. Uti Petelo questioned the increase in employees and Keniseli explained employees of the industrial park are also assigned to the Fagatogo Market Place when needed. He says there are many programs and activities at the market place — such as the First and Third Friday of the month and employees are assigned there.

And last Saturday during the Fishermen’s Day event, staff was needed and some from the industrial park were assigned to the market place — which is overseen by DOC, Agriculture and Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources.

He said the Fishermen’s Day event is a collaborative effort with DMWR and this is the start of a new partnership between the two agencies to promote local fishing and farming as well as encouraging people to get into these type of businesses and other developments to help grow American Samoa’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Uti asked as to the status of tenant’s payments for their leases at the industrial park, and Lafaele said the leases are current after they have been working to ensure that tenants pay on time. Additionally, the industrial park continues to improve to attract new tenants and in two, three weeks a new business is expected to move in.

He says the goal is to develop the park to grow and develop the economy.

On the issue of how much the government charges a tenant, Lafaele says there is a rate already in place but usually the average is 10 cents per square feet. However, they’re making necessary adjustments to at least 54 cents per square foot, but if the business promises to provide many jobs, then that rate — for the first two-to-three years — is reduced to start with.

He stressed that creating new jobs is very important to grow the local economy.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE PLANNING AGENCY GRANTS

During its FY 2017 budget review last week, Criminal Justice Planning Agency director Keith Gebauer explained the process involved when there are grants available and for the public to submit application.

Gebauer’s explanation of the process comes at a time when some organizations have complained to lawmakers that they are not made aware of the process to apply for CJPA grants and are not informed.

The CJPA director explained that every February CJPA puts out a public notice for any government agency or non-government organization to apply and the notice runs for about two weeks “at which point I receive a significant amount of calls from different organizations.”

He said, “As I explain to them what is required, in terms of the reporting, in terms of what they have to do to satisfy the grantor, at that point I simply get, very little follow up from them.”

Gebauer said, “So the public is made well aware when the grants are available, and we make them well aware of the proposals they need to submit in order for us to submit on their behalf as part of our application.”

The grant application is then submitted to the grantor between March and June and “we typically get an answer back between August and October,” he said.

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