Homeland Security urged to fund Rapiscan, to leave local revenue for other purposes

DHS director Utuali’I says local Customs under Treasury, not Homeland Security
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Sen. Tuaolo M. Fruean believes the local Department of Homeland Security (ASDHS) should be funding the Customs Office scanners — to be installed at the territory’s port of entries — because it’s a “security” issue and suggested that ASDHS director Utuali’i Iuniasolua Savusa seek a “higher level” official in federal government to get such funding.

Funding the scanners, background checks on candidates running for public office as well as special agents employed at ASDHS, and relocation of an outdoor siren were some of the key issues raised by lawmakers during Tuesday’s Fono Joint Budget hearings for ASDHS, which has a proposed fiscal year 2017 budget of $3.71 million — including $2.9 million in federal grants and $809,000 in local revenue — for 61 employees.

ASDHS — which includes the office of Vital Statistics — has an approved FY 2016 budget of $3.08 million with the same amount of employees (61).

SECURITY ISSUE

During a Senate hearing early this year, there was strong opposition from several senators for the use of $10 million in proceeds from the American Samoa Economic Development Authority (ASEDA) bonds to purchase Rapiscan scanning equipment that were to be installed at the Tafuna airport, the main dock and the Post Office.

Tuaolo at the time of the hearing argued that this project should be funded through ASDHS and save the $10 million for other important projects for the territory.

At Tuesday’s joint-budget hearing, Tuaolo recalled the Senate’s opposition and asked Utuali’i, if this isn’t a function of ASDHS to purchase the scanners, as this is a “security” issue.

The DHS director reminded the committee that in the US, the functions of Customs falls under the US Homeland Security but in American Samoa it comes under the Treasury Department.

According to the director, he was approached by Customs to fund the project and they were informed that “all department grants are all spoken for on every project” this year as well as next year.  Additionally, if there’s a delay in submitting a project for funding that it would probably take two years before it’s included in grants program, for ASDHS.

He pointed out that his department provides assistance to ASG entities to fund their projects and other needs. For example, ASDHS has held discussions with the Police Commissioner and will be providing financial support so that American Samoa meets the stringent requirements of the federal Real ID Act, which enhances drivers licenses and IDs from American Samoa. He says this is a very important issue for the territory.

Tuaolo suggested that Utuali’i speak to the “higher level” in the federal government about funding, because this important issue deals with the “security” of American Samoa. He said there is a lot of federal funding in homeland security and again suggested to “try [again], ask, go to another higher level”. He reiterated that ASDHS should assist the project with federal funding and save local revenues for other purposes.

BACKGROUND CHECK

Rep. Pulele’iite L. Tufele said that candidates running for public office sign a form, which asks if the candidate is convicted of a felony. He asked as to what role ASDHS plays in conducting background checks of candidates to which Utuali’I said his department has no role in this matter — but ASDHS does conduct background checks for ASG employees.

Rep. Vesi Talalelei Fautanu Jr. noted that in the ASDHS budget, there are four special agents and two criminal intelligence analysts. He asked about the “vetting” processing involved before hiring these individuals.

Utuali’i said background checks are carried out on these agents and the background vetting covers not only locally but also off-island, including states, where the individual has previously lived and worked. 

Pulele’iite inquired if ASDHS has any communication or contact with the local Immigration Office, when it comes to people entering the territory.

He replied saying both sides are still in discussions on this important matter. In addition, he has given the Immigration Office a chance to provide ASDHS with the manifest of incoming flights and vessels to conduct background checks. However, he says ASDHS has to date not received any manifests.

SIREN RELOCATION & SALARY

Rep. Maugaoali’i L.S. Anoai said that according to the budget the ASDHS director’s salary is $68,000, adding that there are directors making $73,000 annually and asked why his salary’s is at the current level.

Utuali’i acknowledged that he is getting the $68,000 salary, and the governor sets the salary.

Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao, co-chair of the joint budget hearings, pointed out that there are directors’ whose salaries are below $68,000 and others earning $70,000. He recommended that this issue be left up to the governor, who sets the salaries of his cabinet directors.

Another issue raised by Maugaoali’i is the outdoor siren located next to the Fagatogo playground and asked if it could be relocated elsewhere for the safety of children using the playground.

Utuali’i said current sites of all sirens were set up after a thorough process and discussions with village leaders. And while relocation is an issue that can be discussed again, he said the issue of money to relocate the siren would be a difficult one to address, because the siren project is federally funded.

House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale noted that current sites followed a study territory-wide to find the best location. And it was recommended, he said, that sirens should be located on flat-land areas, where it will be widely heard, and not only the mountain where it couldn’t be heard by some residents at time of an emergency.

Savali, who is also a traditional leader, was involved in discussions for siren site location at his Alataua County.

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