Tribes struggle to meet deadline to spend coronavirus relief funds
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.
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.