A glimpse of last week's joint budget committee hearings

Review for some ASG entities lasted only 5 minutes
fili@samoanews.com

The budget review process for ASG entities last week were very brief - some agencies lasted only 5 minutes - as the Fono Joint Budget Committee hearings are only focusing on specific questions regarding the fiscal year 2018 budget.

However, one  issue that came up several times for many ASG agencies had to do with expenditures - such as materials and supplies, equipment and the rest of an agency’s personnel costs - being included in the supplemental FY 2018 budget - not yet introduced in the Fono - which is funded with revenue measures pending in the Legislature.

Several lawmakers are concerned with departments and offices putting some of these expenses in the supplemental budget, asking the question, “What happens if the supplemental is not approved” by the Fono?

But joint budget committee leaders continue to remind lawmakers to focus questions on the basic budget, which is the main focus of the hearings, and not mix them up with the supplemental because it has not yet been introduced in the Fono

Here are some highlights from the budget hearings last week.

AGRICULTURE

One issue raised by the joint budget committee with Agriculture director Filifa’atali Michael Fuiava, is the temporary ban on the importation of taro from Samoa, since June this year, following reports from Apia of an unidentified disease affecting taro in some areas of Upolu.

Samoa had sent samples to Germany for testing and the local Agriculture Department is awaiting those tests results.

Filifa’atali informed lawmakers that he remains in communication with his counterparts in Samoa and he was in Apia two weeks ago for meetings. He returned to Apia last Thursday with two scientists from the ASCC Land Grant Division to look at the disease affecting taro in Upolu and will continue to work with his colleagues in Samoa.

He added that during a recent meeting with local farmers, it was learned that there is a sufficient local taro supply to serve the community.

With the temporary ban on taro from Samoa, there have been reports of local farmers hiking their prices, he said, and this was also acknowledged by two lawmakers. (Samoa News has received the same reports, whereby 5 taros used to be sold for $10 but in the past weeks, this has changed to $10 for only 3 taros.)

Filifa’atali said it appears that many local farmers are depending on the federally funded School Lunch Program to sell their agriculture products, but he has encouraged them to look at other areas for agriculture development.

SCHOLARSHIP BOARD

Rep. Ve’evalu Meauta Mageo, a member of the ASG Scholarship Board, said that since the new board came in a few months ago, they are compiling for submission to the Fono, a report on the scholarship fund.

Ve’evalu was responding to an issue raised by Sen. Galeai M. Tu’ufuli regarding a request submitted several months ago to the Board, on the number of students given scholarship to attend four-year colleges and universities off island, and how much money is spent per semester in the past couple of years for these same students.

Galeai said the scholarship board is given a large sum of money every fiscal year but early this year, they wanted more money, and the question is, how many of these students were able to complete their college education without dropping out of school?

The Manu’a senator suggested that the board encourage students to utilize the American Samoa Community College, for two years, before taking up the last two years with an off island college.

He said students from American Samoa heading straight to a 4-year off island college are not used to off island life and this is the reason they drop out before graduating.

The exchange between Ve’evalu and Galeai occurred during the Scholarship Board FY 2018 budget review.

PORT ADMINISTRATION

Among the issues raised during the Port Administration Department budget review is the status of fire trucks for the Airport Division, in which Port director Taimalelagi Dr. Claire Poumele said federal funding is helping with the purchase of a fire truck for Fitiuta Airport, while the fire truck for Ofu Airport is going through maintenance.

She said fire trucks are very expensive and the Federal Aviation Administration helps finance such large expenditures.

Sen. Paepae Iosefa Faiai pointed to the brand new fire stations at both Ofu and Fitiuta airports,  and said they lack proper fire trucks to respond in case of an emergency.

The Airport Division is listed under the Enterprise Fund, which includes ASG entities funded by revenue it collects, as well as semi autonomous government agencies.

In its Profit & Loss Statement, included in the budget document, the Airport Division is projected to collect $2.71 million in revenues - $1.5 million in rents & leases at the airport; $500,000 in airport landing fees; $200,000 in parking fees; and $260,000 from the 5% hotel tax. The airport gets a $500,000 subsidy from ASG, bringing its total FY 2018 budget to $3.21 million.

Historically, ASG has depended  on the FAA to finance major project developments at Pago Pago International Airport, according to the Administration, and to demonstrate a local commitment to this purpose, local resources must be pledged with these funds.

During the budget hearings, questions were asked about revenues collected from MV Sili and MV Manu’atele sails to the Manu’a island group, and Taimalelagi  said that between October 2016 and up to early this month, the total is about $183,000, which is not sufficient to cover the cost of operating ocean transportation service for Manu’a.

The FY 2018 budget category, Special Programs, shows an allocation of $350,000 for the Water Transportation Division of Port. According to the Administration, these funds will help pay fuel costs for voyages by the MV Sili and MV Manu’atele between Tutuila and Manu’a. Also, it will be used to defray any other pertinent costs associated with trips to Manu’a, including Swains Island.

However, Samoa News notes that in past years, this Water Transportation Division money appears never to be sufficient to cover costs, especially fuel.

ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICE

During the Department of Administrative Services budget hearing, Sen. Fonoti Tafa’ifa Aufata suggested installing parking meters at the A.P. Lutali Executive Office Building in Utulei, as this would provide additional revenue for the government.

The Tualauta female senator pointed out that there are alot of cars at the parking lot during business hours and it is used to park ASG vehicles over night.

Administrative Services, among its responsibilities, oversees the EOB, as well as the ASG housing complex in Tafuna, across from Lions Park, and the ASG Print Shop.

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