For at least nine months now, the Division of Customs' K-9 program has not been operational after the last of its nine drug- and bomb-detector dog handlers left the division, Saipan Tribune learned yesterday. The division has yet to replace any of the certified dog handlers due to a lack of funding.
This has left four highly trained dogs sitting idle since June 2012.
The situation has resulted in incoming luggage and passengers, including those deemed high-risk for illegal drugs and explosives, being manually inspected by also a limited number of customs personnel. This means inspections take longer than when dogs are used.
Moreover, two of the Division of Customs' x-ray vans have also not been repaired since breaking down about a year ago. These vans help make inspections of cargo, especially at the seaport, easier and less time consuming.
Customs Director Jesus Muña said yesterday that the repair for the two x-ray vans could cost some $30,000-money that is hard to come by these days.
Muna said the last certified dog handler left the Customs K9 program before the end of June 2012. Some of them went looking for higher-paying jobs either in the CNMI or the U.S. mainland.
He said Customs wants to hire replacements for these certified dog handlers but the lack of funding, among other things, has been making that impossible.
Muna said that they currently have four dogs: three drug-detector dogs and one explosives-detector dog. He said they are properly taken care of and fed, but cannot be used for cargo inspections due to the lack of certified handlers.
“We have not suspended or shut down the K9 program. The program is still there because we still have the dogs. We just don't have certified dog handlers,” Muna told Saipan Tribune in an interview at his office at the seaport area yesterday.
Customs personnel said the use of drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs is just one of their “tools,” so the absence of this tool does not necessarily mean detection of drugs and explosives among incoming cargo and passengers has ceased since manual inspections are still being done.
The K9 program used to train dog handlers not only in the CNMI but also from Palau and American Samoa.
Rep. John Paul P. Sablan (Cov-Saipan), who worked for the Division of Customs for some 14 years before becoming a lawmaker, said in a separate interview yesterday that it is unfortunate that the K9 program has been “non-operational” since last year.
“One can't lose nine dog handlers and not do anything about it. This is a concern that we really need to take a look at,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.
He said the K9 program has been receiving federal grants.
Sablan, a former customs warrant officer, said he is seeking support from his colleagues in the House of Representatives to appropriate more funding to the Division of Customs so that it can once again hire dog handlers to make its K9 program operational.
The lawmaker said he understands the government is in tight financial situation but that priorities also have to be set.
The Inos administration has yet to submit to the Legislature its proposed fiscal year 2014 budget. Fiscal year 2014 does not start until Oct. 1 so Customs may have to wait for at least seven more months to see whether it can get an increased budget from the Legislature.
Sablan and Muña separately said that in the meantime, any funding for the K9 program to hire dog handlers may have to come from the Executive Branch through reprogramming, among other things.
The lawmaker acknowledges the new Inos administration's hiring freeze, but he said the K9 program has not been without dog handlers since last year.
Sablan said that, as far as he knows, Customs itself is down to less than 30 personnel, including the director.
Muna said when he first became Customs director, there were 83 Customs personnel.
Sources said they feel Customs has been “neglected” for months and years. They said customs inspectors and officers are supposed to be eligible for overtime pay but are instead forced to accept “offsetting” of work hours if they have to inspect cargo during off-hours.
The up to 16-hour cut every payday during the Fitial administration did not exempt customs inspectors and officers.
The Division of Customs assesses excise taxes on incoming goods, conducts inspections of containers and packages at the seaport, airport, and post office, and runs the K9 facility or the drug-detector dog training facility. This division is under the Department of Finance.