Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (April 3) – The fiscal mess in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands didn’t start yesterday.

It started years ago, with small acts like deferment of payments to the Retirement Fund, and escalated in recent years with nonpayment of government utility bills.

Chronic mismanagement of government assets, sadly, continues to be tolerated, but all this bad management has consequences.

The government is bloated, and now after many years of indiscriminate hiring and mindless spending binges the bubble is about to burst.

It is a symbol of the times when many well-intentioned and generally hard working government employees retired last year to take advantage of the 30 percent bonus, and then reupped for contract work, seemingly oblivious to the self-serving nature of the act.

In the case of the Commonwealth Ports Authority, for example, the executive director earned a good salary, to which he added a 30 percent bonus upon retirement, and then turned around and entered into a $76,000 consulting contract.

These are legitimate issues that taxpayers and government officials must think hard on.

Is the new executive director for the Commonwealth Ports Authority up to the job or not? It stands to reason that the former executive director has knowledge and experience the new guy doesn’t, but one hopes the board feels the new executive director is up to the task, and can catch up quickly.

The NMC [Northern Marianas College] president found himself in a quandary recently when he considered retiring with the 30 percent bonus after the cut-off date. He also indicated a willingness to stay on the job.

A former associate commissioner for education retired recently with the 30 percent bonus, and is now an applicant for the position of commissioner for education. This individual would be permitted to go back to the field after retirement for a period of two years because education is one of the exempted categories. But should she?

These are the additional costs heaped on the Retirement Fund, generating benefits for individuals at the expense of the system. How long should these practices continue?

While Governor Fitial mulls over the appropriate way to whittle down the size of government, he neglects tackling these structural problems, which means he is not serious about making real changes. While some government employees are being handed their pink slips, others are being handed their green slips.

The new administration officials missed one important lesson on their way to Capitol Hill, and that’s the part that says leaders must have a pretty big reserve of credibility when they undertake big jobs. Privatization, for example, is a good idea for all the reasons touted by administration officials, and then some; but it has to be done legitimately, and that is where past administrations fell down.

Officials in the executive and legislative branches can count on the public’s support to accomplish many things, even tough things when necessary, but this requires public trust, which comes down to confidence that officials are acting in the best interest of the general public. Then all things are possible. But if this critical ingredient is missing, nothing good will follow.

April 3, 2006

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