Tribes strug­gle to meet dead­line to spend coro­n­avirus re­lief funds

Enterprise-Record (Chico) - - NEWS - By Feli­cia Fon­seca

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ. » As the coro­n­avirus ripped through the Navajo Na­tion, it spot­lighted long­stand­ing in­equities on the reser­va­tion where thou­sands of tribal mem­bers travel long dis­tances for med­i­cal care, in­ter­net ser­vice is spotty at best and many homes lack elec­tric­ity and even run­ning wa­ter.

Now, the tribe, fac­ing se­vere is­sues and frac­tured pri­or­i­ties, must de­cide how to spend more than $714 mil­lion in fed­eral virus re­lief money. And they must do it quickly to meet a dead­line that also re­quires state and lo­cal govern­ments to spend the money on emer­gency needs.

The task is daunt­ing on the 27,000-square-mile reser­va­tion that stretches across north­east­ern Ari­zona and into New Mex­ico and Utah. De­liv­er­ing drink­ing wa­ter, build­ing ad­e­quate hous­ing and get­ting res­i­dents on­line would take more money than the govern­ment made avail­able and more time than al­lot­ted.

“It’s go­ing to come down to what projects will meet the time­lines,” Navajo Na­tion Coun­cil Del­e­gate Am­ber Kanazbah Crotty said. “It’s not go­ing to be what we would want to spend every dime on, just what we can get on the ground to ex­pend by Dec. 30.”

The dilemma on the Navajo Na­tion isn’t unique in In­dian Coun­try. Tribes are wrestling with com­pet­ing needs, re­stric­tive laws and in­ad­e­quate staffing to deal with the fi­nan­cial wind­falls on a tight dead­line amid the de­bil­i­tat­ing pan­demic. They must meet strict fed­eral guide­lines on the spend­ing or risk hav­ing to send the money back.

Congress ap­proved $8 bil­lion for tribes in March un­der the Coro­n­avirus Aid, Re­lief and Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity Act. The money was sup­posed to go out within 30 days. But the pay­ments to tribes were de­layed as the Trea­sury Depart­ment grap­pled with how to dole out the fund­ing, and some tribal na­tions sued the fed­eral agency over which en­ti­ties are el­i­gi­ble for a share.

The Navajo Na­tion, one of the coun­try’s largest tribes, so far has signed off on about $60 mil­lion in spend­ing on front-line work­ers against the virus, pro­tec­tive equip­ment, dis­in­fect­ing of build­ings, care pack­ages and health care. Tribal Pres­i­dent Jonathan Nez last week ve­toed more than $70 mil­lion in other pro­posed spend­ing, in­clud­ing $1 mil­lion for a group of tra­di­tional prac­ti­tion­ers, ex­pos­ing the rifts be­tween branches of tribal govern­ment that have de­layed putting more of the money to use.

Choos­ing how it’s spent, se­lect­ing con­trac­tors and pro­cess­ing the pay­ments will be a huge un­der­tak­ing, even for the Navajo Na­tion that’s more ro­bustly staffed than most in In­dian Coun­try. Navajo Con­troller

Pear­line Kirk said her of­fice al­ready pro­cesses nearly $40 mil­lion in monthly pay­ments made by the tribe and will have to hire ex­tra help to han­dle the virus re­lief fund­ing and com­pli­ance.

Kanazbah Crotty said tribal of­fi­cials also must con­sider how they can speed up projects by waiv­ing Navajo laws and tak­ing other ac­tions.

The tribe is jug­gling mul­ti­ple pro­pos­als with price tags that ex­ceed the amount of money avail­able. Among them are wa­ter sys­tems, broad­band ac­cess, power lines, hous­ing and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment that are meant to ad­dress the cur­rent pan­demic and plan for any fu­ture out­breaks.

CAROLYN KASTER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Dr. Diana Hu, left, and a col­league wear per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment as they work on April 20 in the COVID-19 screen­ing and test­ing tent in the parking lot at Tuba City Re­gional Health Care on the Navajo Reser­va­tion in Tuba City, Ariz.

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