Of $10.4M funds under the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, $6.5M must be used up by mid-August; all by Dec. 31
The Office of Grants Management is looking at employing 12 furloughed government employees who are due to be terminated, using the $10.4 million that the CNMI had already received through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
Speaking at a hearing called by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Health and Welfare last Friday, OGM administrator Epiphanio Cabrera Jr. disclosed that they are working with the special assistant for administration in identifying furloughed government employees to fill some of the positions needed for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
When committee chair Rep. Tina Sablan (D-Saipan) asked how many furloughed employees they’d need, Cabrera said they put a budget together for about 12 positions. He said they are trying to get those furloughed employees first before they hire new employees for the program.
Last Tuesday, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres informed the Legislature that he has instructed line agencies to start reduction-in-force procedures involving 180 government employees that are on furlough right now. That means eliminating the positions that these employees used to hold. That would effectively mean termination from their jobs. Torres described the move as part of ongoing cost-containment measures to ensure the continuity of public services.
“I have no choice when we don’t have any tourism and revenue,” Torres said, adding that the government would need $5,688,239 this fiscal year 2021 in order to re-employ these people.
Once the OGM pushes through with hiring these 12 furloughed employees, that will still leave 168 government employees jobless.
As to the who are eligible for rental assistance under the grant fund, Cabrera said that, for the moment, that would be U.S. citizens and green card holders. However, he said, they are working with U.S. Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) in trying to ascertain whether non-U.S. citizens also qualify or not. Cabrera said Delegate Sablan is working with his congressional research staffers and that they hope to get an answer as soon as possible.
Cabrera pointed out that, according to the guidelines from the U.S. Department of Treasury, these funds must be expended by Dec. 31, 2021. However, he said, 65% of those funds—which is what $6.5 million—must be expended by mid-August.
“So we have a lot of work ahead of us to try and expend these funds,” said Cabrera.
The CNMI was awarded $10,400,669 for rental assistance and utility relief through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program under the recently enacted Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Cabrera said the program aims to reduce evictions and to keep CNMI citizens in stable homes, especially during the COVID-19 emergency.
He said their office received word last Jan 15 that they had two days to submit an application to get this assistance. “So we did submit in two days, and about a week and a half later, we received word that $10.4 million was deposited into the CNMI Treasury,” Cabrera said.
He said they are working to get the system up, to get all the infrastructure up to assist all those that need rent and utilities assistance.
Cabrera said eligible households may receive up to 12 months of rental assistance plus an additional three months, depending on the household’s circumstances.
He said payments to existing household-related arrears as far back as March 13, 2020, will be prioritized before consideration of any future rent payments.
“Once a household rent arrears are reduced, the state may only commit to providing future assistance for up to three months at a time,” he said.
Cabrera said OGM has submitted all documents to the Department of Finance for the creation of the new business unit for this program. The documents are currently with the Office of Management and Budget for the final posting, so that they can use the business unit accordingly.
OGM will use 90% of the funds for the benefits for the renters and utilities assistance, while 10% is going to be used for administrative costs. Cabrera said that comes out to $1.04 million for administration and $9.36 million for benefits.
“OGM is working hard to get the new office properly set up to accommodate all the clients, the incoming clients, including locating an administrative office space, fixing communications, maybe networking, getting the necessary office furniture and fixtures,” he said.
Cabrera said the Northern Marianas Housing Corp. has emergency solutions grants, which is their version of the renter’s assistance program. He said they had met with NMHC and Division of Youth Services officials in the past two weeks to prevent the duplication of federal assistance to these possible clients.
Cabrera said pre-applications will be made available starting today, Feb. 16. He said the pre-applications can be picked up at the Office of the Governor.
Cabrera said they are trying to find a new office for that program.