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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Mar. 16) - Tax collections in Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas dropped by $7 million in the first four months of fiscal 2004 to $65.97 million due to fewer tourist arrivals, according to acting Finance Secretary Fermin Atalig.

In the last fiscal year, or from Oct. 2002 to Dec. 2003, collections totaled $72.93 million.

But Atalig stressed that the high collection rate last fiscal year was fueled by the influx of tourists who came to Saipan instead of going to Guam due to Supertyphoon Pongsona.

"I think part of the reason for the big difference is that in 2003, there was...Pongsona. A lot of tourists were diverted then to Saipan," Atalig said.

Atalig, who is facing opposition in the Senate to his confirmation, said Finance is trying its best to increase tax collections without raising tax rates.

He said now is not the time to raise tax rates on businesses because they are already bleeding from the successive blows to the local economy since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

"I will find a way where we can enhance the revenue so that we can provide services to the people...Raising tax (rates) would be our last resort," he said.

The acting finance secretary said existing revenue laws are being reviewed for strict implementation.

"We are going to look at public laws that allow us to collect taxes. Those taxes should be collected. Better enforcement, I guess," he said.

Atalig also plans to create an internal audit system within the finance department if he will be given the opportunity to serve.

"I will create an internal audit system. That section should look into the audit recommendations to work with Deloitte & Touche and the Office of the Public Auditor," he said.

Auditing is a major issue among federally funded agencies like the Public School System and Northern Marianas College.

PSS was recently placed in a high-risk grantee status by the U.S. Department of Education for its failure to timely submit audit reports.

NMC was demoted to reimbursement from advance payment status in distributing Pell Grants also for its failure to submit timely audited reports for at least five years.

Atalig admits that the position of finance secretary is very critical, but he is willing to take the challenge.

"I want to help the people and if it means being scorned at, that’s part of the job," he said.

March 16, 2004

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