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Pay and hiring freezes kick off the New Year

By Fili Sagapolutele PAGO PAGO, American Samoa, (Samoa News, Jan. 3, 2011) – In American Samoa, financial woes for the government, lack of employment opportunities, uproar over hike in utility rates, remembrance of victims who perished in the 2009 disaster, and the constitutional convention were some of the news highlights of 2010. Also, last year drugs raids and the increase in the number of underage drinking cases in court were other significant occurrences as American Samoa enters the New Year with much economic uncertainty while the government looks at more drastic cost containment measures.

When Samoa News asked your average Samoan family what they saw as some of the things which stood out in 2010, their main concern was the lack of employment. Some have been without jobs since the 2009 closure of Chicken of the Sea (COS) Samoa Packing. Also noted were the high utility rates and the snail like pace of the tsunami recovery efforts.

American Samoa rang in the year 2010 in with the hope of prosperity following one-natural disaster and one-man made disaster (closure of Samoa Packing) in 2009. Federal aid brought disposable income into the territory through stimulus money, tax refunds and temporary employment through tsunami recovery efforts.

However, by last month the governor began to implement some cost saving measures such as a freeze on hiring and pay increments, while more drastic cuts are predicted, such as reduction of working hours on the horizon to kick off the New Year 2011.

The start of 2010 saw the Federal Emergency Management Agency, its federal partners as well as the American Samoa Government (ASG), working towards full recovery following the tsunami, while Lt. Gov. Faoa A. Sunia and Sen. Tulifua Tini Lam Yuen went on trial in January at the federal court in Washington D.C. accused of federal crimes. Two months later, the charges were dismissed without prejudice being declared by a federal judge because of a hung jury.

American Samoa did escape two natural disasters at the beginning of the year, Cyclone Rene in February, which did minor damage to the Manu'a Island group, and the Chile earthquake which caused a tsunami that traveled across the Pacific region, watched by an international audience on live television.

What didn't escape local residents was the first rate increase implemented by American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA) in May causing an uproar from many sectors of the community, including lawmakers who were furious with the utility provider over the rate hike, that ASPA says was needed in order for them to meet increasing costs with the biggest expanse the rebuilding of the Satala power plant destroyed by the tsunami.

The second phase of the increase abruptly ended when the Power Authority officials told a House hearing in August that this phase was not going to be implemented, until maybe May of 2011. ASPA says it is still in need of the additional revenues to meet tsunami recovery expenses.

The Administration in 2010 moved forward with the proposed changes to the constitution and by late June the Constitutional Convention opened and several amendments were approved by the majority of delegates to the convention.

However, the amendments were resoundingly defeated in the November general election despite the public being inundated with programs on KVZK, the state run television station, newspaper publication of the amendments, booklets available at the Election Office and the Constitutional Office, as well as forums, discussing the changes passed by the Con Con.

The main objection seemed to be the format presented to the public for vote in election referendum - it had one-question, which asked yes or no for approval, with many voters disappointed that the amendments were not voted on separately.

An interesting observation in 2010 was that drug raids by police increased with an average of two raids per month and the last one happened just two days before the end of the year. Charges on this last raid in December are expected to be filed this week.

Other court issues that surfaced in 2010, pertaining to the judicial branch are the many rape and sexual assaults cases involving minors. There were also many cases of underage drinking.

Also reported in Friday's Samoa News edition on deaths in 2010 was the deadly shooting of Police Detective Lieutenant. Liusila Brown, which was a major news item for American Samoa, as well as overseas news organizations.

At the Legislature, there were two news items will always stand out, as well as the fact that they became international news.

Those items are the ban on plastic bags and the ban on smoking in all public places and many private locations used by the public, such as hotels, restaurants and bars, and bingo-church halls.

As 2010 came to a close, the biggest worry for local residents is not only unemployment but the financial constraints faced by ASG with meetings held last week between the governor and his top financial people. There has even been talk by the government of ‘price controls' on certain staple items to help the public.

This week, the governor is expected to make the final decision followed by an official announcement, which could possibly include a 30 percent reduction in the work force paid by local funds.

The overall financial situation in American Samoa is expected to be the main focus of the Fono, as it begins its work on Monday.

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