AS BUDGET HEARINGS CONTINUE
Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Priscilla Iakopo was in the hot seat yesterday during the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the agency’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2021, with her pay raise and the money allocated to promote the Northern Islands among the items that draw the eye of some lawmakers.
MVA is looking to receive more than the $9-million budget that they have asked for in fiscal year 2021, with the Department of Finance to remit $4.7 million, and the Executive Branch in support of a $13.4-million budget to be available to the agency.
Finance Secretary David Atalig also said that MVA expects to receive 80% of the $5.9-million projected revenue from the hotel occupancy tax, which amounts to $4.7 million.
On top of this, the CNMI government owes MVA $8.7 million, Atalig said, $5.7 million of which is from fiscal year 2019 when the government had a revenue shortfall after Super Typhoon Yutu, plus $3 million that is owed the agency this year.
However, MVA’s furlough of about 80% of their staff got the attention of lawmakers, given the Department of Finance’s recent transfer of $59,000 to MVA to promote the Northern Islands, in addition to Iakopo’s $5,000 pay raise.
MVA furloughed 23 of their 34 staff, leaving them with only 11 people, including one each for Tinian and Rota. “We don’t have enough staff. We would need to bring our staff back in order to provide 100% full marketing and promotional programs,” Iakopo said.
Rep. Joseph Lee Pan Guerrero (R-Saipan) pointed out at the hearing that, even with the transfer of funds, MVA is still hampered with the ability to move forward with its promotion of the CNMI, adding that there are no foreseen successes down the line given that it is indefinite when the CNMI is going to reopen its doors to tourists.
Iaokopo said that Asiana Airlines is to begin an eight-flight “trial” beginning mid-August, while Skymark Airlines Inc. earlier announced the suspension of its flights until the end of September.
The government’s decision to procure the services of YouTube influencer Robert Arrington to promote the Northern Islands in his Deer Meat for Dinner channel also came under scrutiny.
Finance Secretary David M. Atalig said his office transferred $59,000 to MVA for this purpose.
Iakopo explained it as an “opportunity” for MVA. “MVA has always been an advocate for eco-tourism, and what better time than now to share not only Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, but our Northern Islands as well,” Iakopo said.
She added that the money was used to charter a boat, for fuel, meals, and materials. Iaokopo also said that MVA does not have a contract with Arrington, but the contract was just for the procurement of the charter boat, the meals, and materials.
Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) also questioned Iakopo’s $5,000 salary increase, which according to the MVA director, she has yet to take, as her contract is still being processed.
“How was that justified, in light of more than half of your staff being furloughed and cut, and no one else getting increases, and tourism down at unprecedented levels?” Sablan asked, to which Iakopo replied, “Sorry…I can’t answer that. I was scheduled to be with our chair for an evaluation process.”