Shelly touts business as solution to Nation's fiscal woes

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, January 31, 2013

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(Times photo - Donovan Quintero)

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly delivers his State of the Nation address during the 22nd Navajo Nation Council Winter Session on Monday.

W ith an eye on the tribe's financial future, a list of new economic development projects were the focus of the state of the Nation address delivered Monday by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.

Speaking to the Navajo Nation Council during the winter session, Shelly said these economic development projects were conceived as a way for the Navajo Nation to generate its own revenue since federal funding cuts continue.

"We can no longer sit in the passenger's seat of receiving royalties and taxes, while others dictate our direction," Shelly said. "I am proposing new initiatives that will broaden our outlook and create new opportunities to benefit our people."

One of those opportunities is the Narbona Growth Fund, a holding company that would give the Navajo Nation an outlet to create an unlimited number of companies and investment opportunities.

The growth fund would be organized like a corporate structure so the Navajo people would be the stockholders and the Nation would hold common stock. New companies housed under the growth fund would pay tribal taxes rather than state and federal taxes.

This initiative could go before the Council's Naa'bik'iyáti' Committee in the spring with the goal of having the Council vote on it in the summer session, Shelly said.

Another project the president touted is developing the Navajo Port Authority, a facility that would be located in Thoreau, N.M. and would load freight cars and ship products on the portion of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway that runs east to west through Arizona and New Mexico.

Shelly reported that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. is working with the tribe to build this project, which still needs review by the tribe's Investment Committee, and the railway company would invest $5 million in the first stage of the project.

The president also reported that 10 technology jobs were created in Shiprock through the opening of a data center operated by Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Wireless.

The center opened in December and is capable of providing services for companies across the country that want to use the database to store information.

Another job creation project is Nabeehó Power's solar panel manufacturing-assembly facility that is scheduled to open in February in Fort Defiance.

Nabeehó Power is a Navajo-owned business headquartered in Church Rock, N.M.

The 60,000-square-foot facility is housed in the old General Dynamics facility and will produce thin-film solar panels. When the plant is fully operational, it will employ 400 workers.

Shelly reported that the first shipment of panels has been ordered and is destined for Singapore, and there are opportunities to sell panels to American and Mexican markets.

Other projects Shelly mentioned included completion of the proposed Navajo Nation General Leasing Regulations, which enacts the law passed by Congress in 2000 that allows the tribe to lease trust lands without obtaining approval by the Secretary of the Interior for individual leases, except leases for exploration, development or extraction of any mineral resources.

Shelly also mentioned that the Navajo Land Department is developing a database to store all land titles, home-site leases, grazing permits, business leases, correspondence and archives.

The database would be posted on the land department's website and would be accessible by tribal departments, chapters and the public.

He asked for support to reduce the amount of time it takes to approve leases to drill exploration wells for oil and gas production, in addition to amending the Possessory Interest Tax to alleviate taxes paid by renewable energy development companies during their start-up years.

"Our businesses need help so they can become a sustained contributor to the economic health of the Navajo Nation," he said.

The president did briefly address the budgetary issues the tribe is facing, including the reversion of millions back to state and federal governments.

Since the news broke, different amounts have been reported, Shelly said, then added that "it's our responsibility to examine these discrepancies more closely."

That examination includes information that the Office of the Controller has not filed fiscal reports to the federal government on behalf of tribal programs.

He noted that the Navajo Historic Preservation Department has lost more than $600,000 because a report was filed five years late.

"The National Park Service is now declaring our Historic Preservation Department ineligible for funding this year," Shelly said.

He explained that the tribe continues to wait for reimbursements from state and federal governments and the controller's office has not drawn down $50 million, causing another discrepancy.

Shelly said that last year the three branch chiefs agreed to recommend that $20 million remain in the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to cover future emergency needs including looming federal and state budget reductions.

In a Jan. 29 memorandum from the controller's office to the three branch chiefs and the Council's Budget and Finance Committee, the updated UUFB was reported at $25.8 million.

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