Senators voice concerns with ARPA priorities set without their input
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — ASG’s ARPA Oversight Office executive director, Keith Gebauer informed senators last week that it was the governor and lieutenant governor who approved the projects and budget plan for the use of the $479.13 million allocated to American Samoa under the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 and his office plays the oversight role.
Gebauer appeared before the Senate Rules Committee hearing to discuss projects and spending of the millions of dollars under ARPA. He also provided the committee with the American Samoa Recovery Plan Performance Report for the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF).
He informed senators that planning for the projects, based on priorities, as well as funding budget has already been approved by the governor and lieutenant governor and that his office is prepared to move on the projects.
He explained that allocation for the funding approved by the governor and lieutenant governor focuses in on eligible uses of the ARPA funds. And there are four criteria for use of ARPA funds — and one of the criteria is the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the negative impact to the economy.
(Samoa News notes that the performance report also provides specific details of the criteria set by the federal grantor.)
Of the total ARPA grant funding, he said approximately $350 million will go towards health care, which includes a new medical facility, improving medical health treatment services and facilities; and improving DoH community health centers on Tutuila, Aunu’u and Manu’a.
Gebauer said additional funds go to other various projects that meet US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and other such requirements as allowable under the grant funding.
According to the director, the planning and budgeting is “a fair reflection of the governor and lieutenant governor’s prioritizing improving the health care facilities, health care services and treatment available in American Samoa.”
Sen. Alo Paul Stevenson queried about ASG conducting an assessment of the spending and project to see if goals set for the federal money were accomplished. Gebauer responded that this is a “critical component” for his office, which among its roles is to allocate and distribute the money according to the federal guidelines; and to maximize the efficient and effectiveness of that allocation, based on the governor and lieutenant governor’s priorities and what’s eligible.
“And then our reporting follows the very strict guidelines by the federal government — our grantor,” he said, adding that his office has already submitted to the grantor, “our first report which is our interim report, and our performance plan report, which was due on July 31st.
Furthermore, his office follows the federal financial reporting timeline, which is quarterly and annually to ensure that the money is used appropriately, which includes the financial data and programs.
He also said that there will be “public announcements, public reporting on all uses of all ARPA funds so that there is clear transparency and accountability for us and for those who are recipients of the funds.”
Responding to a follow-up question from Alo, the executive director responded: “I think this funding has been characterized as ‘once in a generation type funding’. It is a huge amount. I believe this is the single largest grant awarded to American Samoa. But the grant also comes with very strict guidelines and restrictions. It provides discretion for the territorial leaders to best use of the funds but always under these guidelines.”
“I believe if we use this plan as approved by the governor and lieutenant governor, it has a long term view — and territorial wide view — of improving our overall healthcare facilities, improving our overall healthcare treatment and as a result of that, will improve our overall financial position,” he said. “If we follow the rules for this money and use appropriately, American Samoa can benefit for years to come by having a stronger foundation in our healthcare, which means a stronger foundation for our financial health as well.”
Responding to a committee question, Gebauer reiterated that the function of his office is to provide oversight, and it would not be the right decision for any single person to have the final decision as to where the money is allocated to or how the money is used.
For some project categories, he said there would be a subcommittee formed. For example, the single largest category/ project is the proposed new medical facility — with $300 million being allocated to this project. And all relevant governmental agencies and departments will be part of this subcommittee.
“It’s also requires, per the grant, to call public stakeholders, the community stakeholder, so that we all have a voice in how this is put together, “ he explained and noted that the final decision on how the $300 million will be used is not going to be made by one-single person.
“It’s important for the transparency and use of the funds to follow guidelines, to ensure that all the stake holders are involved. My office is to ensure that who ever is the sub-recipient of these awards, they follow the guidelines of the awards, provide reporting that we’re using the money correctly,” he said.
Details of the performance report are online at ARPA office, which is under the purview of the Governor’s Office - (https://www.americansamoa.gov/arpa).
Several senators voiced their concerns that there was no input from Fono leaders on prioritizing projects and funding, with only the governor and lieutenant governor making that decision for the millions of dollars for American Samoa.