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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Legislature blamed for PSS’ arrears with CUC

The lawsuit filed by the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. against public schools could have been avoided if lawmakers had given the Public School System enough budget for utilities.

This was the sentiment expressed by Education Commissioner Dr. Rita A. Sablan, who disclosed that PSS, for many years now, has been getting very limited funding for the electric and water consumption of all 19 campuses on three islands.

CUC recently filed a collection lawsuit against PSS, the hospital, and the central government for unpaid obligations amounting to over $18 million and growing. Of this amount, some $6 million represents arrears incurred by the school system across many years.

At this point, Sablan said, the system has no financial capability to pay the outstanding arrears and blamed lawmakers for continuously failing to provide an adequate budget for schools’ utility costs.

“Every year, we go up the Legislature and put the budget we need for CUC…and every year, they don’t give us. If they only appropriate money we need for utilities, then definitely we won’t be caught in this situation,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.

In the past, utility costs of public schools, along with other government instrumentalities, were shouldered by the central government. This was stopped after government revenue dropped a few years ago.

Since then, PSS has been given a little over $2 million for utilities despite an average of over $4 million in yearly cost.

In fiscal year 2014 alone, PSS has only $2.3 million (out of its $33-million budget) to take care of CUC bills. The rest of the appropriation goes to personnel salary and benefits.

Sablan disclosed that despite having some collectibles from the central government, no pennies could be used or redirected to pay the $6 million arrears with CUC.

Sablan said that PSS and the State Board of Education will definitely approach Gov. Eloy S. Inos to help resolve this matter.

“I will ask the governor what happened to the memorandum of agreement because I don’t know where it went and what happened to it,” added Sablan.

She was referring to a series of discussions between the Executive Branch and the PSS last year, in order to implement an MOU that would stipulate the Executive Branch’s commitment to shoulder PSS’ arrears with CUC. However, these all fell through.

“I can understand the challenges [of the government]. I just wish we could agree in one meeting that this is what’s going to happen. We had too many meetings [before on this CUC issue] and we’re still running around. It’s already December 2013 so I hope we can resolve this immediately so we’re not distracted in our focus,” said Sablan, adding that PSS took it upon itself to conserve energy in all levels.

Meantime, Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP) is worried about the impact the CUC lawsuit will have on public education.

“It’s going to be a shame if we shut down our schools. I understand that there was an arrangement made but apparently, that fell through,” he told Saipan Tribune during his visit Friday to the central office.

Sablan said that if PSS was challenged last fiscal year, “it would be tougher for our schools this new fiscal year.”

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