Peilapalap, Pohnpei - June 5, 2009 - Pohnpei's Governor John Ehsa held the third press conference of his administration in the Governor's Conference room at 11:00 on June 5, 2009. The event was broadcast live on V6AF, the Baptist Radio Station and retransmitted by the State radio station V6AH. He said that he held the conference so that "we could tell ourselves (his administration) that we are being transparent."
Governor Ehsa has made it a practice to make himself available to the press and has not been afraid to field difficult questions. His first press conference was held on May 23, 2008. He said at the time that to the best of his knowledge, it was the first press conference held by a Pohnpei Governor since Trust Territory days.
Ehsa announced that the school lunch program that he promised during his campaign for the office of Governor will begin in August with the next school year for grades 4-12. He said that he knew that the people of Pohnpei had become impatient waiting for the promised program to start. He had not wanted to start the program until he could be sure that it was sustainable. Though there are still some specifics to be arranged the program will start in August with the new school year for students in grades 4 through 12.
Ehsa said that meals would cost the state 63 cents per meal for a total of $800,000 for the school year. The projected cost for the program including staff and other overhead expenses is expected to be $1.2 million per year.
Not all schools would have kitchens but meals would be transported from schools with kitchens to schools without kitchens.
Ehsa said that the meals would be balanced and would not consist of 100% imported food though there will still be some food that is imported. He said that food producers in Pohnpei should benefit economically by the program and that the scholastic aptitude of students should also be increased.
Some details are yet to be arranged. Ehsa said that it wouldn't make sense for farmers to sell their produce for use at the schools and then have to spend money for a taxi for a ride all the way to the State Finance office in Kolonia in order for them to be paid. The government is looking into the possibility of making financial disbursements from the municipal government offices. This is still to be worked out. He said that he is aware that most of the municipal government offices have not had "clean financial opinions," meaning that financial reporting irregularities appear quite often on municipal finance audits.
Other details include whether or not children will need to bring their own plates and silverware so that the expense of washing dishes can be avoided.
Ehsa said that he would welcome help of any kind on the project including financial donations, volunteer service, or donations of goods-in kind donations. Though there are still details to be handled Governor Ehsa committed to his promise of school lunches, "It's a go next school year."
Governor Ehsa gave the gathered press members and members of the diplomatic corps an update on other governmental developments:
The governor said that a list of 21 projects with a combined total cost of approximately $100 million has been approved by the State Government and has been transmitted to the National Government for review and certification to the US Government for concurrence.
Construction of new classrooms at Kolonia Elementary School, and Madolenihmw and Nanpei Memorial High Schools has begun. Work is scheduled for completion in January of 2010.
Task orders for Saladak, Nett, and Sapwalap Elementary Schools, along with a new Primary Health Center/ Dental Annex have been issued and are expected to be completed within 6 to 8 months. Construction, he said, is expected to begin in the early of part of 2010. Task orders for Sokehs Powe and Seinwar schools are "expected to be issued shortly." Ehsa said that there are still some land issues and issues of environmental protection that need to be resolved before those projects can enter the design phase.
Ehsa said that there will be a new Dental College located in Pohnpei.
In January of 2009 a public road symposium was held in Pohnpei. Ehsa said that there are 50 miles of primary road that need repair along with 44 miles of paved secondary roads. 45 miles of secondary roads are still unpaved. The members of the symposium estimated that approximately $88 million is needed for road maintenance and construction needs. The governor has sent a bill to the legislature that would increase vehicle registration fees by $10 across the board along with a 1% increase in fuel tax. The money raised from those fees would be put into a restricted fund to be used strictly for road maintenance projects. He estimated that the state would raise $700,000 per year for road maintenance projects.
Local matching funds required for the US Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Projects grants totaling about $19 million and the Asian Development Bank's Omnibus Water Project loan program in the amount of approximately $8 million have been made available under the Compact Infrastructure Development Program grant. Actual implementation of both projects will commence shortly. The total cost of the two projects is over $30 million.
An Infrastructure Maintenance Fund projects priority list totaling over $5 million was prepared and transmitted to the Legislature for consideration in March 2009. Programs proposed include projects to repair and maintain public schools, health and sports related facilities in Pohnpei.
Governor Ehsa said that in January Pohnpei Utilities Corporation adopted a resolution declaring that Pohnpei is under a power emergency condition. They asked the Governor's office and the Legislature to assist in order to prevent a total power shutdown in Pohnpei. Options now under consideration include the procurement of a new two megawatt generator and the rehabilitation and restoration of the Nanpil Hydroelectric plant.
He said that his administration's priority is for renewable energy and steps have been taken to develop a program of renewable energy generation.
All of Pohnpei's outer islands now have solar power. The project was made possible by assistance of the European Union.
Two pilot biogas projects have been installed in Pohnpei funded by Pohnpei sister-state the Zhejiang Province in China. He said that biogas can play a major role in developing renewable energy and sustainable development to improve peoples' living standard and the environment of Pohnpei. He said that he would like to see biogas system installed in every household that raises pigs. Printed materials for the press conference said that the cost for one biogas system is $1000. Governor Ehsa said, however, that each one costs approximately $8000.
Ehsa said that a Chinese company has been to Pohnpei at his request and has identified five rivers where hydroelectric power could be viable. He was told that the generation capacity of hydroelectric power in Pohnpei's rivers is upwards of 10 megawatts of power. Pohnpei's current demand stands at 6 megawatts.
Private Sector Development:
The Governor said that foreign investors are concerned about Pohnpei's restrictive foreign investment laws and that he agreed that they need to be improved. He has transmitted a bill to the Legislature proposing to amend the current foreign investment laws that his administration thinks will improve the environment for foreign investment in Pohnpei. The Legislature is currently deliberating on the bill and final action on the measure is expected shortly.
In April of 2009, Ambassador Eric Hotung visited Pohnpei to explore investment opportunities in tourism and other developmental areas. The governor said that he has been informed that Ambassador Hotung is prepared to sign a Memorandum of Understanding relating to interest in financing the development of a Five Star Hotel in Pohnpei. In order to convey the State's earnestness in pursuing the project the MOU has an 18 month timeline that puts the project on a fast track. After that point the MOU expires.
Saying that Pohnpei State was not yet ready to take over the project, he has asked the Government of China to extend the Pilot Farm project in Pohnlangas. Though the decision is not yet final he said that he had been given the impression that the Chinese Government seems disposed toward continuing the project.
An MOU between Pohnpei State and the Shanghai Deep Sea Fishing Corporation is currently at the stage of review and comment. Shanghai Deep Sea Fishing Corporation is proposing to manage and operate an on-shore fish loining plant and other related interests in Pohnpei. Ehsa said that the Legislature has already passed a bill that would allow the company to build the facility on the site of the Pwohmaria Beach Resort. Ehsa had formally said that the company would employ approximately 800 people. During the press conference he said that it would employ approximately 500 people.
During the open question session of the press conference Governor Ehsa asked if Pohnpei State was any closer to paying off on the court judgment against it in favor of AHPW Corporation. The judgment in excess of $1.2 million dollars has not been paid and is accruing interest and penalties every day. Bob and Patti Arthur are under house arrest at The Village for contempt of court and a related but separate matter that would likely be resolved if Pohnpei State were to pay off on the judgment.
Governor Ehsa said that in September of 2008 he submitted a bill to the Legislature that included payment of the judgment. The Legislature did not pass that bill. He resubmitted another bill to the Legislature that would have mandated payment and once again the Legislature turned the bill down. Ehsa said that he had done all that is in his power to do.
Ehsa announced the reopening of the Pohnpei Public Market located in Kolonia. It reopened on May 29, 2009.
Education related issues:
A report for the Department of Education said that the number of students passing the cut-off score of 60% on the high school entrance examination in the 2009 school year is lower than the number recorded in the previous school year. Over 800 students failed the examination. Ehsa noted that the highest scores were higher in 2009 than in 2008.
Governor Ehsa said that while squatting is a problem in Pohnpei he did not think it was possible for a Pohnpeian to squat. He said that every Pohnpeian is entitled to land and that the problem is the issuance of land to the needy.
Land reform is set to begin now that there is a new director at the Department of Public Lands. Ehsa said that Pohnpei will need more surveyors in order to complete the process of land reform and called the issue one of his Administration's biggest challenges.
He said that he has tasked the Department of Public Lands to look into commercial leases of public land particularly the issue of the transfer of leases from a failed business person to another business. He said that he didn't think it was fair or right that a failed business man could make more money by failing than by operating successfully and that lease payments for public land should go to the general fund of the state.
Under the heading of "other issues" Governor Ehsa said that he had submitted a bill to the Legislature for a reorganization of the Executive Branch of the government. He said that the bill includes seven departments and five offices. The bill also proposes to eliminate certain boards, commissions, authorities and corporations and to merge their functions under relevant departments or offices.
A new executive office of Fisheries and Aquaculture has been established by law within the Executive Branch. The Office assumed the public functions previously performed by the Pohnpei Economic Development Authority and the Pohnpei Fisheries Corporation.
The latest Pohnpei financial reports shows that revenue collection for the first six months of fiscal year 2009 is approximately $500,000 higher than for the first six months of FY 2008. His notes said that if the present trend continues he expects to collect a minimum of one million more dollars this year than in the last.
In the question and answer session Governor Ehsa was asked what he would say to his detractors who say that he has traveled too much since he has been in office. He said that nearly everything he had said during the press conference was a direct or indirect result of travel. The Executive Branch, he said, has only $20,000 per year for travel and that is for the Lt. Governor, his support staff as well as for himself. He said that unfortunately whenever government officials travel outside of Pohnpei they are automatically criticized but that he feels that there is not enough travel.
He said that his travels had all produced fruit for Pohnpei that is nearly ready to harvest. "I really don't care what they think," he said. Other funding sources need to be found for Pohnpei's economy besides the Compact alone, he said and likened the Compact of Free Association to a "500 pound elephant".
A Pohnpei questioner asked him whether his travels to Taiwan went against the FSM's adherence to the one China policy. He answered that his visits to Taiwan were for consultations with businesses and not with the government of Taiwan. He doesn't think that those visits are a violation of that policy at all and that Pohnpei still stands on the one China policy.