Half-billion budget includes funds for decentralization, raises

By Antonio Ramirez
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 12, 2013

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After tacking on amendments to kick-start development on the former Bennett Freeze, build some much-needed new chapter houses, keep emergency vehicles on the road and give tribal employees a 3 percent raise, the Navajo Nation Council Monday passed a $571 million budget for fiscal 2014.

In spite of fears the sequester would put the squeeze on tribal allocations, the budget is actually $27 million more than that for the current fiscal year. The Council passed the budget 16-1 in special session. Now it is under final review by President Ben Shelly's budget team.

From the time Council approves the budget the president has 10 days to exercise authority to sign and accept the bill, veto the bill to overrule it in its entirety, or line-item veto it to remove certain sections.

Navajo tribal law does not grant Council the power to override presidential line-item vetoes.

Aged audit

On Sept. 3, the Council's annual budget session commenced with the hearing of the annual audit report from the contracted company KPMG LLP.

While the audit report was passed, it is outdated. This year's approved audit report for 2010-2011 is two years old, as it only covers up to Sept. 30, 2011.

An accurate, up-to-date audit report for 2012-2013 has been postponed because of a court order to shut down Administrative Building 1 and 2 for mold. Inside these buildings are important documents, which contain financial data necessary for the auditing company to do its job.

The budget includes $1.7 million to fund a rehabilitation project for the two buildings so the Nation will once again have access to these documents.

Council delegates voted 12-4 in favor of the legislation to approve the audit, but not without discontent. It was discussed all day on Tuesday.

2014 budget

The budget passed by Council also includes $3 million in funding to begin the decentralization process. The long-term project is designed to bring bureaucratic services that are currently centralized in Window Rock to the local level.

To illustrate, after the decentralization process has taken full effect, people will no longer have to drive to the capital from far-away distances like Tuba City in order to submit paperwork for, say, a building initiative.

During the Council budget session there were 34 amendments added to the budget. Most of the money in the new amendments will be drawn primarily from the Personal Savings Fund and the Undesignated Unreserved Fund Balance.

As the Ppesident and his staff review the bill, each of these amendments must be taken into account. One of the President's priorities is sustaining jobs, according Erny Zah, director of communications for the Office of the President and Vice President.

"We want to make sure that the proposals we put in place to reduce the amount of layoffs is still in place," said Zah.

Sept. 4 was the first day the Council began reviewing the budget. From then until Monday, the 34 amendments dominated the discussion.

Melting the Freeze

In 1966, then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett issued a freeze on development for the 1.6 million acres of tribal land jointly used by Navajos and Hopis until the two tribes came to an agreement on how to divide it.

While the freeze was intended to expedite an agreement, no agreement was made.

More than 40 years later the Bennett Freeze federal policy made it so that the construction of new buildings, waterlines, or general development necessary for prosperity in the region was considered unlawful.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and Hopi Tribal Chairman Ivan Sidney inked a pact to settle the land dispute in 2006, and President Barack Obama lifted the freeze in 2009. However, the region continues to lack basic infrastructure.

In an effort to make up for lost time, the Council voted 12-0 in favor of an amendment to approve $3 million from the UUFB to start developing general infrastructure and housing, as well as to begin design and construction of new chapter houses for the communities of Cameron, Chilchinbeto, Tonalea, and Chichiltah.

All four chapters have been meeting in alternate locations - in Cameron's case, sometimes a tent - since their chapter houses were condemned in recent years.

Council delegate Leonard Tsosie (Baca/Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake) raised the possibility of using funding from the federal government rather than tapping the UUFB.

"This is a federally induced problem and there are monies out there. I believe where we can convince the federal government to help us with this," said Delegate Tsosie.

Tsosie abstained from the vote on the amendment.

Keeping 'em on the road

Tsosie successfully proposed an amendment to approve $500,000 to provide for gas and mileage for emergency vehicles. While the amendment was approved, debate over it largely encompassed the absence of a technical breakdown of the funding.

In response to criticism Tsosie said, "If we do a budget we will have to do it for each program that wants to use this. I'll be honest and say, 'I don't know how to do that.' We would have to bring in a book of budget forms because we will have to look at each business unit, wherever their mileage is.

"The good people from Budget and Finance Committee, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of the Controller will assist us with the language and lend their advice to try and make this better," Tsosie continued.

Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd (Jeddito/Cornfields/Ganado/Kinlichee/Steamboat) questioned whether OMB would have an opportunity to divide the $500,000 for each of the departments, but ultimately supported the amendment.

"There is a constant need for additional mileage, cost (of) travel for emergency operations. The problem that we have (is) when a police call is received, a police officer, an ambulance, a fire rescue, they got to respond. They got to respond even when they don't have the funds," said Shepherd. "It's a moral responsibility."

Raises for everyone

One of the amendments highly contested was the amendment to approve $2.9 million for a 3 percent general wage adjustment for all Navajo Nation employees.

According to the discussion, the purpose behind the raise is to help tribal employees adjust to the increased cost of living, and to incentivize capable Native American employees to work on the reservation.

Despite the well-intended nature of the amendment it drew large amounts of criticism.

Delegate Joshua Butler (To'Naneees'Dizi) said, "This amendment is not well thought out. I say this because we have many departments that have workers that have been laid off because of the budget cuts within the Nation. There is a lot of other ways to utilize this money."

Butler did not vote on the amendment.

A few Council delegates wondered whether the tribe's employees deserve a raise.

"We have these senior employees that have been here for a long time and we also have these receptionists and secretaries that answer the phone calls. They have no professional skills at all. They are the meanest employees to our people on the Navajo Nation and they do not need a GWA because of their character," said delegate Duane Tsinigine (Coppermine/K'ai Bii'to/LeChee/Tonalea/Red Lake/Bodaway/Gap).

Tsinigine asked for clarification to show that the bill is intended to recruit younger graduates to work on the reservation.

Later in the discussion delegate Danny Simpson (Becenti/Lake Valley/Nahodishgish/Standing Rock/Whiterock/Huerfano/Nageezi/Crownpoint), sponsor of the amendment, asked rhetorically, "Why do you think young people who are educated go off the reservation?"

He answered, "Because these private enterprises are paying high top dollars to our kids."

As for concerns about unprofessional tribal employees, Simpson said, "We're like mom and dad, we're leaders to the people. We do have a lot of good workers out there, hard workers. These are our kids. There is always one bad apple, but these are our kids. We work with them."

By the end of the discussion the amendment passed, 11-6.

Contact Antonio Ramirez at news@navajotimes.com.