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Naabi approves CARES expenditure extensions without public discussion

WINDOW ROCK

Despite a majority of Diné expressing opposition to a bill (No. 306-20) during the comment period, last Friday the Naabik’iyati Committee swiftly passed the bill (20-3), which extended the expenditure deadline for all programs with encumbered Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds from Dec.15 to Dec. 22.

This gave programs another week to spend their allocated monies before they revert to the Hardship Assistance fund.

The legislation also extended the expenditure deadline from Dec. 15 to Dec. 28 for the completion of encumbered water, power and broadband infrastructure projects, and health services critical to COVID-19 mitigation, including testing, contact tracing, isolation/quarantine facilities, and alternate care sites.

Encumbered funds refer to monies “obligated” with contracts or agreements in place.

To the shock of many who were tuned in to the Naabik’iyati’ session online, the bill, sponsored by Delegate Rickie Nez, passed without any discussion by the delegates, who often spend countless hours debating legislation of lesser impact.

“What just happened!?” cried out several people who posted comments on the live broadcast.

“A Friday Night Massacre!” replied another.

“The Council Delegate railroad ramming begins!” said another. “Where is the discussion that this committee is supposed to go through as its purpose?!”

Nez did not respond to a request for comment about why there was no debate on the bill.

“I think one of the big reasons why there wasn’t any discussion was because of how many internal and conversations that we had prior…” said Speaker Seth Damon. “ I think when it got to the committee level they knew what they were voting for.”

Delegates Eugenia Charles-Newton, Amber Kanazbah Crotty and Vince James, who have advocated for getting the hardship assistance out to the people as soon as possible, voted against the measure.

Originally, Dec. 15 was the deadline set by Council (on Oct. 30 in Resolution NABIO-49-20) when all obligated funds would automatically revert to the Hardship Assistance fund if goods and services were not delivered by that date.

Nov. 20 was the deadline by which funds not spent or obligated would have already reverted to the Hardship Assistance fund.

No. 306-20 indicates that the Council received updates that several power line, solar, water, wastewater, broadband and COVID-19 “direct care” and decontamination projects “serving numerous communities” could be completed by Dec. 30 if the Dec. 15 deadline was extended.

“…The Naabik’iyati’ Committee determines that it is the best interest of the Navajo Nation, Navajo communities and the Navajo people to extend the deadline to mitigate the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the bill states.

No detailed project listing

No. 306-20 also did not contain a detailed listing of all projects and services in progress that were approved under the blanket expenditure deadline extensions, which had been requested by Crotty, James and Charles-Newton.

“I don’t know at this point what projects will be extended through this resolution and that’s my concern,” said Crotty. “If we don’t know the projects, that just creates chaos. In this time of COVID, we need complete transparency. We need to see it in black and white.”

A request from this reporter for a comprehensive listing of all project and services contracts currently encumbered with CARES Act funds was not responded to by the president’s and the speaker’s offices, despite their commitment to transparency and accountability when it comes to the expenditure of the federal funds.

Speaker Damon did say that a full accounting of all CARES Act expenditures will have to be reported to the U.S. Treasury by September 2021.

As reported by the Office of Management and Budget on Dec. 11, the total amount of funds still obligated for divisions and programs administering the CARES Act funds is $62.9 million.

This includes $1.1 million for the Judicial Branch, $15.2 million for the controller’s office, $7.8 millions for Division of Community Development, $7,500 for the Division of Economic Development, $16.3 million for the Division of General Services, $19 million for Department of Health, and $3.6 million for the Division of Natural Resources.

However, a line-item breakdown of what exactly is included in those amounts in terms specific contracts and vendors, and the progress of the projects and services, has not been made public to date.

As delegates Crotty and Charles-Newton have stated repeatedly, the people have a right to know exactly and to the dollar how the CARES Act funds are spent on their behalf.

“The people don’t know what to think about this,” said Crotty. “They don’t have enough information.”

$284 million ‘should be in the pot’

Defending his vote on Facebook, Delegate Carl Slater stated, “COVID isn’t stopping on Tuesday, 12/15. Nineteen delegates and I voted to preserve and save lives and provide the most elemental resources to make it through the pandemic for those whom we could.”

Slater said it was always understood that approved Navajo CARES projects that could be completed by Dec. 30 would be granted that opportunity.

He said programs that provide health care and food resources to keep people safe during the pandemic and infrastructure projects that provide water, power and broadband benefit the community are worthy of the extension.

“I believe that this is lifesaving, harm-reducing work that is making peoples’ lives less painful and miserable at the moment,” said Slater. “We as a government have an obligation to fulfill that.”

Delegate Otto Tso said that part of the issue underlying the extensions also relates to certain contracts that President Jonathan Nez signed with a delivery date of Dec. 30, which, if cut off on Dec. 15 before completion, could end up in legal limbo.

“We want to keep the Nation out of litigation,” said Tso.

Now any remaining, obligated Navajo CARES Act monies not spent by Dec. 22 and Dec. 28, respectively, will revert to the Hardship Assistance fund and any funds that are not transferred to the Hardship fund by Dec. 30 will revert to the federal government.

All of this means that the Navajo government and the people will not know exactly how much will end up in the Hardship Assistance fund until after Dec. 28.

As an additional point of confusion, the controller’s office’s website currently states that $284 million is in the Hardship Assistance fund and yet a Dec. 11 OMB report states that only $137.5 million is in the fund.

A request for clarification on the $146.5 million discrepancy to the president’s office did not receive a response.

Joshua Lavar Butler, public information officer for the controller’s office, responded, “I suggest contacting the Navajo Nation Office of Management and Budget. The $137.5 million represents only funds OMB has transferred. The $284 million is what should be in the pot.”

OMB director Dominic Beyal did not respond to this reporter.

Damon said there have been delays with budget transfers because OMB is short-staffed and operating with a skeleton crew.

“They are all working really hard right now,” said Damon.

Regardless, Damon said his office is going by the $284 million number the controller’s office is reporting as the official amount in the Hardship pot at this time.

Two months ago, it was estimated by the Controller Pearline Kirk that $396.6 million would be needed to satisfy hardship assistance of $1,500 payments for adults and $500 payments for minors for 327,000 Navajo tribal members.

As of the Nov. 30 application deadline, 290,000 Diné had applied for Hardship Assistance.


About The Author

Rima Krisst

Reporter and photojournalist Rima Krisst has been with the Navajo Times since July of 2018, and covers our Arts and Culture and Government Affairs beats. Prior to joining the editorial team at the Times, Krisst worked in various capacities in the areas of communications, public relations, marketing and Indian Affairs policy on behalf of the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico. Among her posts, she served as Director of PR and Communications for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department under Governor Bill Richardson, Healthcare Outreach and Education Manager for the Eight Northern Pueblos, Tribal Tourism Liaison for the City of Santa Fe, and Marketing Projects Coordinator for Santa Fe Indian Market. As a writer and photographer, she has also worked independently as a contractor on many special projects, and her work has been published in magazines. Krisst earned her B.S. in Business Administration/Finance from the University of Connecticut.

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