Editor’s Note: The following is the text of the remarks the author gave at the Saipan Chamber of Commerce’s General Membership Meeting yesterday at the Hyatt Regency Saipan Ballroom.
The last time I spoke here I talked about the lessons I learned from a challenging year and about the partnerships we have made to move our islands forward.
Mainly, I talked about all of us—private sector, nonprofits, and your government—working together to achieve common goals and solve our Commonwealth’s most pressing problems. I also talked about communication and how continuing to maintain consistent discussions is important to me and your businesses. At the end of the day, your success is our success.
Community-based collaboration is the key to our Commonwealth’s success, and I take your feedback seriously as governor.
A big issue that has been brought up to my attention is our new Munis financial system, which I understand is a concern for vendors.
When our Secretary of Finance Dave Atalig presented to the Chamber in October, he outlined our goal for more fiscal transparency and making our processes more efficient and effective.
As you all know, we converted to a new Financial Management Information System [and] Tyler Munis and we had some expected transition issues converting invoices from JDE software to Munis. We should be good now and the [Atalig] has assured me that vendors are getting paid, and we want to thank our business community for being patient as we get through this huge technology change.
Finance is working with all our departments to train staff, improve productivity, and correct any issues during this first stage of implementation. I will ensure that Finance continues to improve implementation so that we can get to a better place with this new process, and I thank you all for your understanding and patience.
Another issue that has been brought up is the status of nonprofit ARPA funds. Secretary Dave has met with MANGO and other nonprofits to go over guidelines for nonprofits to apply for this funding.
The SOF and I finalized the awards for those non-profits who submitted applications for assistance and, although we cannot award everyone’s full request, I am happy to share that we can support the non-profit organizations in the Commonwealth get funding through ARPA. I have asked the SOF to inform those of their awards and we will be setting up the formal award presentation to each non-profit in the next couple of weeks.
I have asked CEDA (CDA) to assist our small business community with grants to get their business up and running again. With about $20 million available for small businesses, the goal when assisting our small businesses in the Commonwealth is to get our economy back up and running. We want to see our private sector employ our local people and help us get back to where we were heading before the pandemic. I encourage each one of you to contact CEDA for assistance. My administration is pro-business and we want to see you all survive and succeed.
The main restriction of ARPA is that we cannot use these funds for any pension obligation and to reduce or subsidize any state or Commonwealth tax rates. Other restrictions are that we cannot pay for anything prior to March 2021. As for what happens if we do not use these funds before we need to, which is December 2024, then we will need to return the funds to the U.S. Treasury.
I know the Secretary of Finance will make sure we spend these funds way before then as the goal of my administration is to infuse monies into our community to assist the private sector and stir economic development [on] our islands. We need to make sure we commit these dollars by December 2024 and we can seek extension up to December 2026 for projects committed and encumbered by December 2024. All projects must be done by December 2026 or we will need to return remaining funds and for any projects not completed, we will need to fund it to completion with local funds.
Lastly, with the rise in COVID-19 cases in our community, I am aware that many have expressed concern and fear. I will say that [the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.], our [Governor’s COVID-19] Task Force, and I are working on new protocols to protect our community and to prepare for the possible threat of the new omicron variant.
The protocols are currently being reviewed by the attorney general. We will notify you all once it has been approved.
Since the beginning of 2020, my administration through the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force and CHCC has implemented strict, but necessary, constraints on activities throughout the Commonwealth to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 throughout our community.
Due in large part to the quick implementation of these risk mitigation measures, the ongoing protective measures at the borders, the successful vaccination efforts, as well as the cooperation of the community in adhering to guidance from CNMI health officials, the CNMI still remains a safe place as hospitalizations remain low and primarily [among][ unvaccinated residents.
Our goal now is to shift focus toward protection against increased hospitalization that would overwhelm CHCC and private clinics and to ultimately safeguard vulnerable residents like our man’amko and people with health ailments. We also need to encourage more of our people to be vaccinated.
During my time as governor, the policy decisions I make have always been in the best interest of our economy and for our people.
I appreciate the value you all bring to the table. Every day you are open for business, we come closer to our goals of a world-class tourism destination, a strong education system, a safe and resilient community, and a community of opportunity and promise. We know as a government that we must do a better job in ensuring your success so we all can succeed.
Now, more than ever, we need to come together, stay vigilant about our health without causing widespread panic, and continue to make the Marianas a first-choice destination.
Let’s work together to normalize our tourism so that vaccinated visitors can come and enjoy our beautiful islands and our warm hospitality. This is what we can do to help minimize the negative effects of this economic loss. It’s all about partnerships and communication.
For now, please continue to follow updates from CHCC and my office for the latest and most accurate information regarding the coronavirus. We continue to monitor the situation closely, and if you need any information, please contact my office or CHCC.
Ralph DLG Torres is governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.