Senators table Port hikes after businesses ask for more discussion

fili@samoanews.com

Because of testimony by some private sector representatives that they hadn’t had thorough discussions with Port Administration on the proposed hike in port fees and charges, the Senate Transportation/ Port Administration Committee has postponed taking complete testimonies from business members on port fees and charges, until a later time.

Top officials from StarKist Samoa and four shipping companies appeared yesterday for a committee hearing to share their views and input on the hikes in port fees and charges, as proposed by the Lolo Administration.

At the outset of the hearing, committee chairman Sen. Paepae Iosefa Faiai asked if the private sector had held appropriate meetings with Port Administration on the proposed fees and charges.

StarKist Samoa official, Taotasi Archie Soliai recalled media reports based on testimonies from ASG officials in both the Senate and House, that there was a port users meeting in 2015 and 2016, where he, along with officials of the shipping companies present at yesterday’s hearing, were all present.

Port Administration director Taimalelagi Dr. Claire Poumele told lawmakers last month that a public hearing, through meetings with port users, was held in 2015 and 2016 as required by the local Administrative Procedures Act. However, Port didn’t implement the fees and charges until now, with the proposed Administration bill.

(See Samoa News Sept. 12 and 22 editions for details).

At yesterday’s Senate hearing, Taotasi acknowledged that port fees were discussed in 2015 and 2016 during the port users meetings; but what Port did not disclose, was the amount by which the fees would be raised or proposed. He did say that Port Administration director and officials mentioned that it has been 30 years since the fees and charges were raised.

Fonoti Isabel Hudson with Hamburg Sud concurred with Taotasi’s statement, adding that although the private sector was informed about the proposed fees, they were not given a chance to get together with Port to discussion them.

(Samoa News notes that the ASG Revenue Task Force had twice made a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce including one during a general membership meeting in July but the private sector wasn’t given much of a chance for a thorough discussion with the task force, to voice their concerns regarding the fees and charges. Some members did point out the fees were too high.)

Paepae said that as chairman, he believes Port Administration and port users should have discussed and negotiated a final decision, before fees and charges were presented to the Fono for approval.

Sen. Tuaolo Manaia Fruean pointed to local law, which requires public hearings on these types of issues, similar to ASPA, which calls public hearings when they propose rate hikes. He asked if there were any public hearings on the fees and charges.

Taotasi agreed with Tuaolo that public hearings are required by law and pointed out that there were no public hearings and there was also no negotiation or official discussion between the private sector and Port on the proposed hikes in fees and charges.

“So your complaint is, the fees and charges are too high?” Tuaolo asked the witnesses, to which Taotasi replied, “yes”.

Tuaolo said the shipping companies charge a person $8,000 for a 40-foot container and that person has nowhere else to complain to about such high charges. “And you complain about the [proposed] fee hikes?” he asked the witnesses.

Hudson said it's not that they are complaining, but instead, voicing their concerns. She said port users want more time for discussions with Port, and to share with Port why it's very difficult for shipping companies to accept these proposed fees and charges — which amount to about a 70% increase. 

She said perhaps Port is not fully aware of the rate setting structure for shipping of containers, and shipping companies can provide a detailed explanation to Port Administration.  For example, there is a cost in the US and then add on the local cost, and in the end, it becomes very expensive, she said.

Herman Gebauer of Polynesian Shipping said if the shipping companies can’t absorb any costs, it's passed on to businesses, who then pass it on to consumers and that makes it more expensive to purchase goods at local stores.

Tuaolo suggested postponing the rest of the hearing for a later time, giving the private sector a chance to meet and discuss their concerns with Port Administrations. Other senators supported the suggestion.

The hearing ended with Taotasi saying that he agrees with Hudson, that port users have “concerns” regarding the proposed fees and hikes, which they’d like to thoroughly discuss with Port Administration.

It's unclear when the committee will hold another hearing, as the current 2nd Regular Session is set to close next Friday.

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