With just nine staff manning the Office of Grants Management and State Clearinghouse, the lack of time and enough personnel are their biggest weakness, considering the many federal grants coming in to the CNMI.
Appearing before the Senate Special Committee on Office of Grants Management and State Clearinghouse chaired by Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider, office administrator Epiphanio E. Cabrera Jr. believes the OGM-SC should have 20 personnel to carry out their duties and obligations efficiently.
“Yes, we are overextended, spread thin, but we continue to trek on,” said Cabrera in his testimony at the start of the four-day oversight hearing. The Senate committee is looking into alleged discrepancies in the OGM-SC report pertaining to some federal funds that the Commonwealth has received over the years.
Cabrera said, however, that they do not shy away from their tasks, whether its grants on one day, assisting with COVID-19 to improve health and safety of the community, undertaking a food relief drive on another day, or assisting with beautification and enhancement projects, or working alongside other government offices to strengthen federal programs and services.
He said the dynamics of the grant world never seems to stop, “whether it be a grant that is due the next day, a reprogramming is needed to be done on our end, a transfer of charges had to be executed to prevent the loss of federal funds, or trying to get caught up with reports, while receiving notification that an additional form is needed for the 1,200 CNMI residents that applied for the CARES Act Fishing Relief grant assistance and the deadline is next week.”
Cabrera said all these duties and responsibilities get tested daily. For instance, they just received notification that the CNMI’s State Plan for Outdoor Recreation has been approved and they have about one month to prepare grant proposals to kick-off the spending of $3.8 million or that $8.5 million in energy grants are available and that proposals are due by June 30, 2021.
“This is the world we live each day. It is dynamic and multi-level,” he said.
In response to Sen. Vinnie Sablan’s (Ind-Saipan) question, Cabrera said the information his office provided the committee shows that there are about 486 grants out there and over 800 business units that make up the financial network for federal grants. Cabrera said OGM cannot simply manage all the grants.
“Again there is only nine of us. We do, however, assist in the management of certain grants, particularly those that revolve around the Office of Insular Affairs,” he said.
The administrator said many agencies were reluctant in the past to apply for competitive grants, but this is changing. “A lot of them are trying to take the onus of running their own grants. And when they cannot, they come out to our office, and we provide that guidance to them,” Cabrera said.
Hofschneider said he couldn’t over-emphasize the importance of OGM meeting deadlines. “And we don’t expect anything less from this side when we request for information. We really didn’t need to do this thing had we [gotten the] information beforehand. This platform is not the doing of the Senate. So I want to flush that out,” Hofschneider said.
He said he’s not being personal or anything because it’s nothing like that. “But I just want to reiterate again, that it’s an informational hearing that we want to get more guidance from your expertise,” the senator told Cabrera.
In an interview after the hearing, Hofschneider said they are doing the oversight hearing because there are several inquiries by his office with regards to grants and all the activities of OGM-SC.
Hofschneider said the OGM-SC was created five years ago to address a lot of the grants that are coming here from different agencies and many had non-compliance issue.
“That’s the reason why we supported the clearinghouse structure. So this exercise is to allow the committee members or the Senate, in this case the Legislature too, to see where we’re at as far as that is concerned,” he said.
Hofschneider said because of this initial meeting, it’s obvious that there are some elements in the statute that they need to revisit and potentially amend the law.
The Senate president said he also recognizes that OGM-SC has been doing a lot to bring in competitive grants and to assist agencies to the point where they admitted they’re overwhelmed.
“So every year that we have budget season, even though they don’t necessarily get direct appropriations since 2017 from the general fund, it is their responsibility to come to the Legislature and ask for assistance so that we don’t fall into this reasoning they’re overwhelmed with their task,” he said.
Hofschneider said that’s understood because there’s a lot of grants that are coming in.
“ So in order for the Legislature to understand the challenges, we need to have an understanding from them also to…feedback us information,” he said.
Hofschneider said he called the meeting because of OGM-SC’s lack of response to his letters and subsequent letters to some of the concerns being raised. He said he couldn’t over-emphasize the need for Cabrera’s cooperation with the Legislature because OGM-SC was created by law, and by endorsement by majority of the Legislature.