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Don’t supersize, but right-size it

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About 10 months ago, a 23-year-old intern at the Division of Customs Services discovered smuggled illegal pesticides hidden in a 5-gallon plastic container topped by about a 3-inch layer of pungent pickled vegetables.

He dipped his gloved hand in the concoction when he suspected that something is still not right even after the importer ate some of the vegetables in front of him to prove to Customs that the gallon contains only food.

The same Workforce Investment Agency intern, who was training with Customs for only a few months at the time, also discovered just a few weeks earlier over 40 pieces of counterfeit luxury goods.

During these discoveries, the intern, Don F. Teregeyo, was under the supervision of Customs officers.

Those like Teregeyo, who have the initiative, who are eager to learn more, know how to follow through on their actions and understand the meaning of public service, are among the types of people this administration needs as it contemplates hiring more people to improve government services and beef up law enforcement and revenue collections-related agencies such as the Division of Customs Services.

Teregeyo and at least three other WIA interns with him at the time are now fulltime customs officers, after proving themselves worthy of their titles.

But Customs needs a lot more personnel given its dual function of collecting revenues and as a law enforcement entity inspecting cargo entering CNMI borders. As it is now, Customs already needs more personnel given the increased tourism activities.

What more when investors like Honest Profit International, Best Sunshine Inc. Ltd. and other major investors start shipping into the CNMI construction materials and other goods for their projects or when new flights start coming in?

Customs Director Joe Mafnas, who has effectively reformed the division, said their current personnel count of around 45 would need to be increased to 75 to 80, and Customs is justified in its request.

The Inos-Torres Committee on Transition itself recommends increasing the size of the CNMI government, which it says is actually understaffed, contrary to common perception that it is bloated. But this shouldn’t mean a CNMI government hiring spree to reward relatives and political supporters. It should not be about hiring “more” people, but hiring only “qualified” people to efficiently do the job they are being hired for.

It should be about right-sizing the government, not supersizing it.

It does not make sense to hire 10 new people in one division, for example, when what’s needed is to hire just five or less qualified people that can efficiently do the job.

In its 18-page summary of recommendations, the Committee on Transition says most divisions’ staffing has been reduced by 50 percent or more, which it says “threatens the timely deliveries of essential public services.”

While it is true that a number of agencies with law enforcement and revenue collection-related functions such as the Division of Customs Services, Division of Revenue and Taxation and the Department of Public Safety are understaffed, the same can’t be said for other entities, including costly elected and appointed positions.

Even on non-election years, for example, proposals to abolish three sets of municipal councils and three sets of legislative delegations have failed miserably despite their duplicative functions.

The need to hire more, according to the Committee on Transition, also stems from Best Sunshine International’s planned construction of a whopping $7.1-billion integrated casino resort and other investors on Saipan.

But whether the government has more funds to hire more people at this time is yet another issue, when no construction, much less a casino operation, has even started.

However, at least for Customs, the director said “it takes time” to train people to become effective and highly skilled officers.

As for other agencies outside of Customs and DPS, hiring more has to be carefully weighed.

Does it make more sense to come up first with a government assessment and plan on how Saipan’s roads, utilities, law enforcement, public safety and other infrastructure can handle activities related to a $7.1-billion investment, before starting to hire people for government jobs especially if they are in non-law enforcement and non-revenue-related agencies?

Many of the recommendations in the Inos-Torres Committee on Transition report brought up the same old suggestions or promises made by previous transition committees, countless economic forums and highly-paid consultants such as establishing a one-stop business center to speed up the business licensing process, creating a comprehensive economic development plan, or making the government more transparent and accountable.

It is not at all bad that these ideas are suggested once again but hopefully, this administration will be the one to finally heed the oft repeated recommendations.

Most of the recommendations are worth pursuing. Other specific suggestions can also be pursued immediately, including those related to government procurement and the prompt termination from government employment of those with positive drug test results during random unannounced drug testing while they’re holding certain positions and that they shouldn’t be re-hired in government for at least five years. The list goes on.

But it is not enough that Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Lt. Gov. Ralph Torres call for a press conference or issue a press release announcing that their administration is heeding the recommendations of their own transition team.

The Inos administration has to actually follow-through on its identified goals, tasks and actions. Otherwise, everything in the transition report would prove to be just another lip service and the recommendations would just gather dust along with many other reports, studies, and suggestions on how to improve the government.

And in the case of the smuggled illegal pesticides that Customs discovered last year, no one has gone to jail for that, as of yesterday. That right there is an example of a lack of follow-through on the part of government.

Customs has done its part. It discovered smuggled items and fined the business for the smuggled goods. The matter needed to be referred to other agencies for further actions and prosecution, but to no avail. It does not make sense that every time Customs intercepts smuggled items, other regulatory and law enforcement agencies would just bungle the case.

But there’s more to it. The Legislature also has to introduce a bill to amend laws governing CNMI Customs, to include illegal pesticides and insecticides in the definition of “contraband” and Director Mafnas said this came to light only upon further review of Customs laws and rules after the discovery of pesticides hidden beneath pickled leafy vegetables.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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