Council funnels $2.4 million to public safety
Expansion of public safety and first responders was listed as the No. 2 priority for the $600 million CARES Act funding when they commented on the Navajo Nation Council’s Navajo Nation CARES Act Fund, according to Speaker Seth Damon.
These funds continue to sit in an account and it’s not known exactly when they will be expended, but Division of Public Safety is in need of funds now. During last Friday’s special Council session an emergency bill approving $2.4 million to go to public safety from the Unreserved, Undesiganted Fund Balance was approved.
“One item we are struggling with overall is compensation for the overall employees of the division,” said Jesse Delmar, Director of the Division of Public Safety. “Another item that is crucial is the protection equipment that we need and we’ve been looking all around to get some help.”
Delmar said about 30 employees have tested positive, and three of those are officers who are currently in the intensive care unit after contracting COVID-19.
Police Chief Phillip Francisco, who did not present during the special session, said across the country there have been over 100 officers who have lost their lives to COVID-19. He added peace officers are dying at a higher rate than health professionals.
“Health professionals are dealing with this every single day, but they are in a controlled environment and they have PPEs,” said Francisco. “Officers don’t have that luxury, because they are out in the field and they have to deal with the circumstances. Its even more important to have our first line responders, public safety, to have PPEs and equipment.”
So far the Division of Public Safety has been on the front lines during this coronavirus, and the police department has been given the authority to maintain these public health orders of daily and weekend curfews. Not only does the police department have to worry about implementing orders, they also have to respond to emergency calls.
But when it comes to emergency calls Francisco told the Law and Order committee recently that calls for services, which could range from calling with a question or asking for a welfare check, have decreased 55 percent compared to last year. Calls reporting major crimes are down 74 percent, and domestic violence calls are down 63 percent.
“We are seeing a reduction in crime,” said Francisco.“My concern is if this goes on and people are home we may see a rise in child abuse and domestic violence. So we are trying to maintain availability of our staff and not overtask them with other things like health command orders or curfews.”
If there is another wave of coronavirus, which has been predicted, Francisco said they’ve projected it will cost the police department $9.8 million. He said at one point he tried getting a $1.8 million order of PPE, which would last officers 120 days, but that never went through.
“Having the correct PPE and enough to respond to calls is important, but the problem is we don’t have a good calculation of the burn rate, said Francisco.“For police it’s a different burn rate. An officer could go on a call and get his mask ripped off his face in a fight, so he’s going through three or four masks in one call. So after five or six calls a day he could be going through 10 or 15 masks a day, and gloves are a different thing. So its hard to predict.”
In regards to hazard pay Francisco explained to the Law and Order committee that red tape and last minute notifications has deterred the process, but his intent has always been to get the officers paid first.
“I made the decision to pay out of a .638 fund and made sure it was available,” said Francisco. “I can pay an amount of salary out of a .638 as long as its police related and actual hours worked. This was the quickest way I thought I could get my officers paid instead of waiting for general funds. We are out of general funds. I have to wait for another pot of money from Council, health command, or somewhere else that would take longer.”
Some delegates did not see the urgency of Delmar’s report; such was the case for Health, Education, and Human Services Committee member Pernell Halona. Halona said these funds could come out of the CARES Act rather than the UUFB.
“There is no CARES Act, yet,” protested Speaker Seth Damon. “Or an area of where we can draw down from the CARES Act.”
Halona continued with his stance and said if PPE is that important then public safety can get those through emergency management, and worry about hazard pay later.
“PPEs are the important factor with the job as far as police department, safety people, and the hospitals,” scolded Halona.“I still think emergency management has enough to help our police force. I don’t know if he (Delmar) didn’t ask them or request them. That’s the supervisor’s job to make sure that is happening. Just like myself: I couldn’t get PPEs or anything for my chapters. I went out and bought my own out of my own pocket. That’s what a leader does.”
Resources and Development Committee member Kee Allen Begay said police officers have to deal with COVID-19 head-on, where as Council has the option of working from afar in the comfort of their homes.
“We are sitting on $600 million and that bothers me,” said Begay. “Asking for funding, but we are just sitting on $600 million.”
Law and Order Committee vice chair Otto Tso told delegates that public safety has depleted much of its general funds budget because of COVID-19. As for that $4 million that the executive office touted and Council approved a few weeks back, none of it went to public safety.
“Out of the $4 million that we appropriated for COVID-19, public safety received zero,” said Tso. “Not a penny.”
With this $2.4 million allocation approved by council, it is up to President Jonathan Nez to veto or approve it. Navajo Nation Council sent out a press release urging Nez to approve the bill.
“Many of these first responders have families and are spending more time helping our great Nation than being at home with their loved ones. We appreciate all that they do and Council leadership will continue to work to get them what they need,” stated the bill’s sponsor, LOC chair Eugenia Charles-Newton.