Bennett Freeze funds starting to flow

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

GALLUP, Nov. 21, 2013

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After decades of promises that money would become available for the building of new homes and renovation of existing homes in the Bennett Freeze area, funds will soon be available to do just that.

Raymond Maxx, director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Office, said Tuesday that the tribe is now finalizing plans to turn over $2.9 million to chapters in the Bennett freeze area to start distributing to its members for house building or repairs.

The money could be turned over to the chapters as early as next month, he said. The money comes from a trust fund set up to make life easier for families affected by the Congressionally mandated freeze on development enacted-- some 40 years ago and finally lifted in 2009.

The money has been sitting in the trust fund for more than a decade but because of political red tape has never been approved for use by the Bennett Freeze families.

"Because of the tribal bureaucracy, this is a much faster way to get the money out to the people," Maxx said.

His office has been working with the nine chapters in the Bennett Freeze area -- Toadlena, Leupp, Cameron, Coalmine Mesa, Tuba City, Bodaway/Gap, Kaibeto, Coppermine and Tolani Lane -- to come up with a fair way to distribute the money to the chapters.

A formula was set up, Maxx said, that will take into consideration the chapter's population as well as the degree of impact the Bennett Freeze had on its members.

The least a chapter will get is $200,000 but the more affected will get more than that, he said.

While this was going on, the affected chapters have been compiling a list of families who have been affected by the Freeze and having them fill out applications.

"We want to be able to help the most needy," said Maxx.

This means that staff in Maxx's office will be monitoring the release of the money to make sure that chapters follow guidelines and don't show any favoritism in determining who will be given the money and how much they will be given.

"We realize that this is but a drop in the bucket," said Maxx, adding that it is a start.

The land office has come under severe criticism in recent years from many of the families in the Bennett Freeze area -- some of whom have called themselves The Forgotten People -- for the department's failure to provide relief to families who have been unable to get new homes or infrastructure because of the Freeze.

It's become a major political issue for every tribal administration as tribal leaders try to find the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to bring that section of the reservation up to the same living standard as the rest of the reservation.

At the center of this controversy has been allegations by the members of the Navajo Nation Council as well as the President's office that federal officials from the 1970s on have violated their promises to help the Bennett Freeze area families.

Maxx said his office is continually bringing to the attention of members of Congress that the problems in the Bennett Freeze area are solely because of the actions of Congress.

"They need to take ownership of this problem," he said.

The tribe currently is urging Congress to set up an agency like the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Office to address the concerns of the affected families and to provide the funds needed to build new roads, power lines and other infrastucture.

"If they don't want to set up a new agency, we are asking them to increase the scope of the relocation commission to include this as well," Maxx said.

In the meantime, the land commission is working with the Navajo Housing Authority to use a $2 million grant that was set up several years to do a study to determine what infrastructure is needed in the affected chapters.

Once this study is done, said Maxx, it will help tribal officials in their efforts to seek federal dollars to address some of these needs.

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