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‘Set up to fail’: With deadline looming, chapters face roadblocks spending CARES Act funds

WINDOW ROCK

Chapters have until this Friday, Nov. 20, to spend the $90 million that was allocated to them for emergency COVID-19 relief in a resolution (No. 197) by the Navajo Nation Council on Oct. 9, but chapter representatives are saying that that’s not happening because of bottlenecks in Window Rock.

According to the controller’s office website, as of Wednesday, Nov. 18, not a penny of the money set aside for chapters has been spent or encumbered.

“All in all, it’s total chaos and there’s no time to do anything,” said Coalmine Canyon Chapter Vice President Phil Zahne. “We tried to make something happen, but nothing.

“I would say it’s a total failure,” he said. “They system isn’t friendly to do anything even with an emergency situation. Nothing’s an emergency in Window Rock.”

The controller’s office is responsible for monitoring and dispersing all Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds and the Division of Community Development was allocated $2 million to help administer the funds.

All of the unspent and unobligated CARES Act funds will automatically revert to the Hardship Assistance Program on Nov. 20, per Council resolution.

‘It’s unbelievable’

Piñon Chapter President Bessie Allen said the chapters have done their best to expend the CARES Act funds in the short timeframe.

“Our central government is so bureaucratic, it’s unbelievable,” said Allen. “The way the CARES Act funds are being handled – making a mountain of bureaucracy out of an ant hill.”

Allen said several proposed Piñon projects should have qualified for the funds but were turned down by the controller’s office. Other expenditures had been approved after “bouncing back and forth to controller,” but no monies have been released from the controller’s office.

Allen added that her chapter knows how to follow federal guidelines and could have managed the expenditures themselves.

“Piñon Chapter has dealt with FEMA dozens of times – this is similar,” she said. “I strongly know that if the funds were given to certified chapters, we could have already expended all of it by now. Here it is going on third week of November, and not a penny has been spent on chapter expenditure plans.

“They’re still shuffling papers in Window Rock,” she said. “It’s not the chapters’ fault at all.”

Zahne said Coalmine Canyon submitted its expenditure plan to the controller’s office in the first week of November and they “haven’t heard anything.”

“Nothing is happening because everything is controlled by Window Rock,” said Zahne. “What everybody’s saying is the chapters were ‘set up to fail.

“The Council and the president had six months to figure something out and it never happened until the eleventh hour,” he said. “They dumped it all on the chapters.”

‘They’ve done the work’

In a KTNN radio forum last Friday, Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, department manager for DCD’s Administrative Service Centers, said her office was working in close collaboration with the controller to help administer the funds as quickly as possible.

“Our 110 chapters have been working with the office of the controller’s team, including the Baker Tilly consulting group,” said Jim-Martin.

“Each of our chapters has been assigned a support representative to work directly with chapter staff and elected officials to develop their expenditure allocations so that they can meet the needs of their communities,” she said.

Jim-Martin said that most chapters finalized their expenditure plans, based on community needs assessments, which were submitted to the chapter distribution portal, managed by Baker Tilly.

DCD is also taking the lead in ordering some supplies that the chapters have requested in bulk, such as personal protective equipment, sanitation supplies and non-perishable foods, although there are supply shortages due to the pandemic, said Jim-Martin.

Once the orders are received, they will be sent out to chapters, most likely in December, she estimated.

Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty affirmed that the chapters she’s worked with have done their part.

“They’ve done the work,” said Crotty. “I’ve seen the chapter plans. At some point if chapters are ready to move forward then we have to move forward and get those purchases encumbered for them.”

However, Crotty said the chapters are highly dependent on the consultant Baker Tilly communicating with them.

There also needs to be more communication from DCD and the controller’s office with leadership, she said.

“We understand that this is a process, but I think the chapters are very frustrated,” said Crotty. “We just need a plan because the deadline is looming and the funds need to be encumbered.”

‘Doing the right thing’

In an email sent to this reporter on Tuesday, Upper Fruitland Chapter Manager Alvis Kee said it has been very frustrating to see administrators of the funds so focused on “doing things right (procedures)” instead of “doing the right thing (helping people).”

As of Tuesday, his chapter had not received approval for the expenditure plans they submitted, he said.

“One of our employees is saying, ‘We’re being set-up to fail,’” said Kee. “With all the delays, that may very well be true.”

Zahne said it’s sad that “the people” aren’t going to get what they need and the chapter officials will probably be blamed.

“The one thing we can probably do is order facemasks, gloves and sanitation supplies and that’s about it,” said Zahne.

Teesto Chapter Manager Clara Tsosie said that some of their chapter expenditures were approved, but most of the projects they proposed still needed to be “justified.”

“There is a lot of miscommunication by the OOC contractor Baker Tilly,” said Tsosie.

As examples, she said the controller’s office is denying requests for aid to a Teesto homeless man who lives in a tent and a family of nine whose house burned to the ground.
“How do we help families in need?,” asked Tsosie.

Tsosie said it definitely would have been helpful if the funds had been allocated to the chapters earlier in the pandemic. Meanwhile, she suggests the Navajo Nation government should return calls and emails, eliminate delays and help chapters expend the funds.

‘Play the game’

Allen said no respect is shown to chapters by the DCD and controller’s office, despite having gone through the processes they laid out for them to spend the CARES Act funds.

“We’ll see if it was really meant to help local communities,” she said. “We are doing our best to play the game.”

She said the chapters were initially excited when the Council approved the CARES Act funds because they already knew what the needs were in their communities.

“I know the central government likes to blame chapters for their own failures,” said Allen. “We are so embarrassed by our government’s bureaucracy that we can’t even expend these emergency CARES funds for our grassroots people in our communities.”

Yet, said Allen, outside consultants were hired to process the funds who don’t even know what the Navajo people are facing with the pandemic.

“Are we so heartless at central government to make sure our people suffer more?” asked Allen. “These funds are supposed to be a relief to the crisis we’re experiencing right now and since the onset of coronavirus pandemic.”

Zahne said several chapters have already turned the money back over to the Hardship Assistance Program knowing that it won’t be spent by Nov. 20.

“Everybody is just giving up because of the deadline,” said Zahne. “That’s about all we can do.”

Jim-Martin confirmed that any funds that are not spent or obligated by Friday will automatically revert to the Hardship Assistance Program.

“We do know that chapters would like to expend all of their funds for their community and their chapter operations during this emergency,” said Jim-Martin. “We also understand that many community members also need the emergency assistance from the Hardship Program.”


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