Of the CNMI’s running balance for the COVID-19 response expenses of $82.3 million, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has only reimbursed $10.1 million so far, according to Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig.
Testifying before the House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means chaired by Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) last Tuesday, Atalig cited the delay in FEMA’s reimbursement of these COVID-19 expenses and it is thanks to the infusion of $36 million in CARES Act funds that the CNMI has been pulling through.
He said that of that $10.1 million the CNMI spent in the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, they received just $8.1 million from FEMA.
“So can you imagine, from March through Sept. 30, I got zero reimbursements,” he said.
He said those are challenges facing the Commonwealth and his position in balancing funds. “We have to respond to the pandemic but, at the same time, we actually have to have cash to pay vendors and get the equipment or the necessary things like PPEs (personal protective equipment])that we needed,” Atalig added.
The CNMI is very fortunate that it has had the $36 million funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, as assistance for the territory.
When asked if any of the CNMI’s running balance of $82.3 million has been deemed non-reimbursable, Atalig said he does not have the figure. “I don’t have a direct figure but there are some figures that were deemed unreimbursable. So we covered it through CARES Act,” he said.
Atalig said he will have a separate report on how they spent the CARES Act funds.
Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) asked Atalig what accounts for the delay in getting these reimbursements for COVID-19 expenses, to which Atalig replied, “I wish I have the magical answer.”
He, however, pointed out that they are aware that FEMA is short-staffed.
Atalig said the closure of many offices in the federal government also caused the delays in processing the CNMI’s request for awards/reimbursements. Also, many federal workers were telecommunicating or working from home, which added to the delays.
He also believes the November 2020 elections delayed things.
“There’s a lot of just, I would say, non-factual answers, but it’s just overall, a lot of things are happening in the federal government side that caused a lot of longer delay than we’ve experienced when we’re dealing with [Super Typhoon] Yutu,” he said.
Atalig said they also have about $45 million to $50 million in project requests (expenditures) to be awarded and reimbursed.
Atalig said there has been more activity from FEMA and their response to the CNMI’s request for reimbursement as the new fiscal year started.