Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (April 30, 2010) - This week, a Rhode Island financial institution returns to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) to offer a US$25 million loan for the Rota port project. The specifics and the financing terms should be disclosed soon.

The Fitial administration, eager to secure the cooperation of the Senate, is pushing for this project. On the surface and in ordinary times, a port project for Rota sounds all well and good. But these are not ordinary times.

The lt. governor and the acting secretary of Finance have announced shortfalls in the projected revenue for the first quarter and Governor Fitial have said that terminations are on the way in keeping with budget limitations.

But he refuses to structure the budget to keep essential positions and avoid raising taxes. And now he wants to build a port on Rota.

The people of the commonwealth must realize that every project usually has a cost-benefit analysis to go with it, which answers the questions of necessity, benefit and cost. Rota’s population, like the rest of the islands, is shrinking as a result of outmigration. Though pressed to develop its private sector, Rota has not been able to do so. Opportunities outside the government are limited there as they are on Saipan and Tinian. A cost-benefit analysis might show that the loan, coupled with its financing cost, is too expensive to maintain. Don’t forget: there are maintenance costs that will go with the construction costs. And then there is the political question — how can the governor gamely approach a US$25 million loan plus financing costs for a port on Rota when he will not explore ways to maintain the current levels of government employment for Saipan, which is where the revenue base is?

One could make the argument that he has done that and continues to do so by spending valuable resources to hire contractors — for the Department of Public Lands. For ordinary government employees threatened with pay cuts, the hiring of a former felon and a defeated Northern Islands mayoral candidate is an insult and a slap in the face. A lot of government employees have not received an in-step increase and were promised promotions for close to 12 years. They have to quietly watch as those with less qualifications and experience are hired to serve purely political ends.

Meanwhile, the defections at Attorney General’s Office continue and its lack of lawyers is already producing a dismissal of cases in the courts. Is that what the governor and his attorney general want? It will also produce more targeted prosecutions. Is that what the people of the commonwealth want?

The governor, in any case, indicated that the U.S. Department of the Interior has approved the Rota port project. It appears that CNMI officials view federal funds as extra money. To explain too much travel, government officials say "it’s federal money." But every dollar spent on some frivolous activity is a dollar taken away from some productive use — and there is no such thing as extra money.

Providing service to outlying islands is always an expensive proposition, more expensive than, say, for Saipan. But is it really a good idea to, for example, maintain a Northern Marianas College (NMC) campus on Rota and Tinian? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to provide full scholarship to those students on Saipan? If they bunked with the patients at the apartment complex reserved for medical referrals from Rota and Tinian that might save a lot of money.

In these difficult times, there have to be limits to the levels of spending committed to jurisdictions that contribute very little to the revenue base. But CNMI leaders continue to ignore alarming indicators of a total meltdown, and they continue to be prompted to action not by any concern for the islands’ long-term welfare, but by their short-term personal interests and political needs.

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