“THERE is always room for improvement,” thus said Department of Commerce-Economic Development Director Jesus Taisague when asked by a House joint committee about fairness in the processing of the applications for the $17 million Building Optimism, Opportunities, and Stability Together or BOOST program.
Taisague represented Commerce Secretary Edward "Tofila" Deleon Guerrero on the application review panel for the BOOST program. The other panelists are former Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig and Office of the Governor Chief of Staff Wil Castro.
Deleon Guerrero earlier told the House joint committee that it was Taisague who served on the review panel.
In his testimony, Taisague spoke in Chamorro. The joint committee’s co-chair, Rep. Celina Babauta, then translated to English some of Taisague's answers.
Taisague said when he reviewed a BOOST application, he looked at the applicant's business plan. He said his responsibility was to look at small businesses that needed help.
One of the criteria for consideration, he said, is the uniqueness of the business to encourage economic diversification.
In determining the uniqueness of a business, he said, the applicant should be the only company that provides its products and services.
He also wants to see if the company promotes CNMI culture.
“I look at what they are applying for and what they intend to do with the money,” he said.
He also looks at the potential of a business to create merchandise that can be exported.
When asked about fairness in recommending applications for the governor's final approval when there are thousands of applicants, Taisague said there is always room for improvement.
He also said that they did not require applicants to submit financial projections.
Asked if there is a “structure” used in determining what amount to approve, he said, “it did not exist.” What they did is to determine if the amount indicated in the application is reasonable or not, he added.
He noted that the BOOST program website itself indicated that the awarding of grants is based on the availability of funds.
"So, what do you say to all those who are still waiting?" Rep. Corina Magofna asked.
Taisague replied: “I said there is always room for improvement…. As a member of the review panel, when I'm done reviewing, I submit it then, my job is done. That is my understanding of my role.”
Prior to questioning Taisague, Rep. Leila Staffler said there was “much inequity” in the administration of the BOOST program.
Going over the numbers, she said over $1 million in BOOST money went to 44 applicants on Rota. She said if that amount is given out equally to those applicants, each would have received $26,000.
On Tinian, she said 52 were given BOOST grants that amount to $1.73 million or about $33,000 per person.
On Saipan, where 78% of BOOST grants were awarded, she said a total of $10.5 million was given to 188 recipients some of whom were awarded twice. The total amount would have provided each grant recipient $56,000, she added.
Staffler said the decision to award certain applicants twice was "quite arbitrary as well."
Aside from Babauta, Magofna and Staffler, the other House members present at the joint hearing were Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, Reps. Tina Sablan, Edwin Propst, Joel Camacho, and joint panel co-chair Donald Manglona.