While the Inos administration and the House Committee on Judiciary and Government Operations are now looking for ways to help the Division of Customs' K9 unit become operational again, they are also questioning the lack of action to fill the positions as they became vacant.
The unit has been idle for at least nine months now due to the resignations of all certified handlers of the drug- and bomb-detector dogs.
Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), chairman of the House JGO Committee, said yesterday it is “disappointing” that the division has allowed its K9 program to be stagnant for nine months now.
Like many others, Leon Guerrero said he became aware of the issue only after the media carried a story about the sorry state of the K9 program. He said his committee is looking at ways other than raising Customs' fiscal year 2014 budget to ensure that the K9 program will function again.
The unit helps deter drugs and explosives in incoming cargo, luggage, and passengers.
“Just imagine home much drugs have come in undetected because there's no handlers for the dogs,” he told Saipan Tribune. “Funding is a problem for almost all agencies but it's still questionable why in nine months no one has been hired.”
Customs Director Jesus Muna earlier said the use of the unit's trained dogs is just one of the many “tools” customs use; its personnel can still manually inspect luggage, cargo, and passenger for drugs and explosives, especially those deemed high-risk. However, this means longer inspection hours.
The last of the nine former certified K9 handlers left Customs before the end of June 2012.
Because of lack of funding, among other things, the division has been unable to hire replacements, Customs said.
This has left four highly trained dogs sitting idle since June 2012.
Press secretary Angel Demapan separately said yesterday that the Inos administration is reviewing the matter to resolve it as soon as possible. He also said that the administration is not considering right now whether to abolish the K9 program or transfer the dogs to another agency such as the Commonwealth Ports Authority.
“One concern of the governor is to see why there was no action to fill these positions as they were being vacated,” he said.
As of this time, there's no telling whether there will be reprogramming of funds to hire a dog handler.
“This will be determined once the review is done. If there is a need to reprogram, the governor will first have to identify funds available for such action,” Demapan said.
Customs' two x-ray vans have also been sidelined for about a year now due to the lack of funds to repair them.
Demapan said this “matter will be part of the review.”
Customs, a division under the Department of Finance, assesses excise taxes on incoming goods, inspects containers and packages at the seaport, airport, and post office, and runs the K9 facility or the drug-detector dog training facility.
Rep. John Paul P. Sablan (Cov-Saipan) said yesterday that something should have been done months ago to hire at least one or two dog handlers. He reiterated that he will seek the support of his colleagues in the House to give more funds to the Division of Customs to help its K9 unit hire new dog handlers or bring back those who have left.
“I will push for this funding request,” said Sablan, who worked for the Division of Customs for some 14 years before becoming a lawmaker.
The Customs' K9 program, which has been receiving federal funds, used to train dog handlers not only in the CNMI but also from Palau and American Samoa.
Sources said among the reasons customs personnel left the division is unpaid overtime because they were forced to accept “offsetting” of work hours if they have to inspect cargo during off-hours, even though they are eligible for overtime pay. They said the private consignees or businesses owning the cargos to be inspected are charged for customs inspection service anyway, not the government. The up to 16-hour cut every payday during the Fitial administration also did not exempt customs inspectors and officers.