CARES kerfuffle: Delegates angry over hardship memo extending deadline
A Nov. 20 memorandum from the Navajo Nation president’s chief of staff has angered some Council delegates, who say it gives chapters and tribal programs a loophole for hanging onto their CARES Act allocations into December rather than reverting them to the Hardship Fund as the Council mandated in recent legislation.
The legislation had mandated any funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act not spent by the programs by Nov. 20 would automatically revert to the Hardship Fund, which will distribute the remaining funds among individual tribal members impacted by the virus.
But the memo states, “If the allocated CARES-funded program provides information on amount needing to be encumbered after November 20, 2020 such as personnel, monthly billings and documents still in procurement, the Navajo Nation Office of Management and Budget will allow amount justified/needed to continue to Dec. 4, 2020.”
That’s tomorrow, so it’s doubtful too many programs were able to take advantage of the extended deadline, but several Council delegates were angry at what they perceived as a bureaucratic coup.
“It appears the Office of the President and Vice President and Office of Management and Budget are attempting to, well, not circumvent, but completely violate the law passed by the Navajo Nation Council reallocating unexpended monies into the Hardship Assistance Program,” wrote Delegate Carl Slater on his Facebook Page.
“Bottom line,” posted Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton, “the Diné people need these funds. Do not let it go back to the federal government. Speak up for you, your family and neighbors.”
The memo was signed by OMB Director Dominic Beyal, but the line for Controller Pearline Kirk’s signature was left blank. Kirk did not return an email by deadline, but Charles-Newton stated on her post that Kirk refused to sign it because she agreed that it violated Navajo Nation law.
Beyal did not return a phone call Wednesday.
The memo stated that the provision was necessary to comply with the Navajo Nation Budget Instruction Manual and internal controls.
Several Navajo citizens who saw the memo in social media posts called the Navajo Times Tuesday wondering what the impact would be on the hardship fund.
The fund was established to use up the CARES Act money that couldn’t be spent on projects by the Dec. 30 deadline by dividing it among the applicants, who so far number around 240,000 of the tribe’s 327,000 members.
While the maximum benefit was capped at $1,500 per adult and $500 per child, so far it’s nowhere near that. According to the controller’s website, it’s currently at $249 per adult and $83 per minor.
“It seems like President (Jonathan) Nez doesn’t care about the people,” said one caller, who added she was going to look into impeachment proceedings against Nez. “I’m hearing people say they’re going to march on Window Rock.”
Nez says that’s not fair.
“First and foremost, I support hardship assistance funds for the Navajo people,” he wrote in a statement to the Navajo Times. “My signature is on the resolution that approved those hardship funds and to allow other CARES Act funds to be diverted to that pot of money.”
But, he said, the projects are important too.
“The resolutions that were passed by the Council and signed into law also included funds for water, power line, telecommunications and other projects that are bringing long-term benefits – these projects are getting done as quickly as possible,” he wrote in the statement.
“So far, thousands of our people have received electricity, water systems, bathroom additions, increased telecommunications access, and much more,” he said.
Regarding the memo, he said, “We have to show documentation and accountability for every dollar of the CARES Act funds that is spent. The memo outlines the process and procedure to move unspent CARES Act dollars to the hardship assistance fund. It guides our divisions and programs to reconcile what funds are spent or obligated, what is pending, and to help determine an exact amount of unspent funds so that we know exactly how much will be available for direct relief to the people.”
Nez said he will explain more about the process in his next virtual town hall meeting. In the meantime, “We have to remember that we are in this fight against COVID-19 together,” he said. “As elected leaders, we should not be creating division among the Navajo people. Instead, we need to communicate with each other directly and resolve the issues and get these funds expended for all of our people.
“The sharing of misinformation must end now,” he said. “I am praying for all of our people and our leaders because the only way we prosper is when we work together.”