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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Landowners demand payment

Wheelchair-bound Rafael Rangamar, 77, has been living in a termite-infested house in Chalan Kiya which, since last year, also didn’t have power and water as the family could barely make ends meet. For decades now, the Rangamar family has been asking the government to pay at least a portion of what they claim is $14.4 million in unpaid compensation for the taking of portions of their family land for road construction.

“All we ask is at least partial payment for now. We’re not asking for everything all at once. Our house is termite-infested and it could fall on us any time. CUC [Commonwealth Utilities Corp.] had to cut power and water last year because we didn’t have money to pay them,” Rangamar told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

He shares the dilapidated house with his wife, two sons, four daughters and three grandchildren on some 20,000 square meters of land in Chalan Kiya.

Rangamar was one of the dozens of landowners who trooped to Capital Hill yesterday morning to attend a joint meeting of the House Committees on Ways and Means and Natural Resources to tackle land compensation and related issues.

“Not even a penny was paid to us,” Rangamar added.

Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), Ways and Means chairman, said the goal was to bring together government agencies involved—the departments of Public Lands, Public Works, and Finance and the Office of the Attorney General—so they could help update and educate landowners on the process of land compensation and what’s been done to satisfy court judgments.

Sablan said unpaid land compensation has been an age-old CNMI government problem.

He said the task at hand now is for the Legislature to come up with—and pass—revenue-generating bills that will help pay landowners their rightful claims.

A number of pending bills and initiatives seek to help generate additional revenues and set aside percentages of those revenues for land compensations.

One by one, families addressed lawmakers and agency heads yesterday in the House chamber about their longstanding requests to get compensated for the taking of their private lands for public purposes such as to build roads and protect wetlands and ponding basins.

DPL’s Ray Salas said the total unpaid land compensation as of last year was over $83 million, but he said the department needs to review the figure once again.

Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas, Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson, and DPW Secretary Martin Sablan were also on hand to answer House members’ questions about land compensation, including how the $40 million bond that was floated supposedly to pay land claims was spent.

Of the $40 million bond floated, only $28 million went to land compensation.

Rep. Tony Sablan said, “If we keep on looking backward, we won’t be able to move forward,” referring to the $40 million bond that was floated years back and the task at hand to generate more revenues or re-appropriate money for land compensation.

“This is not going to be an overnight solution… I believe the lowest [land compensation claim] is $34,000. I don’t see why people have to wait for 20 years for that amount to be paid,” he said.

House vice speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan) said it best when he pointed to the House of Representatives.

“This is the body that appropriates money [for land compensation]—not DPL, DPW, AG, Finance. What has happened to $40 million solely intended for land compensation, but not used in its entirety to compensate landowners? I don’t want to dwell on what exactly happened. The politics of the past had played a great deal and this is where we are today… looking for more money to appropriate,” Dela Cruz said.

One of the recommendations from DPL that the vice speaker finds helpful is setting aside future interest income from the Marianas Public Land Trust to pay for land compensation.

Dela Cruz noted that the NMD Corp. opposes that proposal, claiming it won’t benefit people of Northern Marianas descent. But Dela Cruz said, “This is our own NMDs that will benefit.”

The vice speaker, along with other House members, raised concern on the method used to decide which families will get compensated first before others.

At one point, Dela Cruz chuckled when he mentioned that one family alone was compensated close to $3 million for a wetland.

DPL said there are over 300 families who have been waiting for government payment for lands acquired decades ago for road projects, among other things.

DPL revenue from government land leases cannot be used to pay for land compensation claims. Under the law, these funds must be transmitted to MPLT for investment. Earnings from these investments go to the general fund, which the government then uses for its operational expenses.

One of the bills pending, Rep. Ray Tebuteb’s (Ind-Saipan) House Bill 18-143, would allow the government to satisfy judgments without an appropriation; in short, they should be paid from “any available funds with or without appropriation” from the Legislature.

There is also more than $27 million in government’s outstanding and unpaid judgments and settlements that go as far back as November 2004.

Under CNMI law, any final judgment of a court can only be paid if the Legislature appropriates a budget for it. Every year, the Office of the Attorney General sends an updated list of outstanding and unpaid judgments and settlements to the Legislature.

“And the Legislature is sitting on our money, not only this Legislature but past Legislatures,” Rangamar said as he prepared to leave the legislative building at past lunch hour yesterday.

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