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Navajo Nation's COVID-19 financial relief clears another step, starting date still pending

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Budget and Finance Committee has approved the next step in the Navajo Nation's initiative to financially help enrolled tribal members affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committee passed a bill on Oct. 15 that set the eligibility criteria and the application for the hardship assistance program, which will use approximately $49.4 million from the total amount the tribe received under the federal coronavirus relief bill.

Navajo leaders approved the program to help tribal members facing difficult financial circumstances due to the economic impacts of the pandemic.

The Office of the Controller will oversee the program and will administer the application through an online portal. During the committee's discussion, delegates recommended that personnel at chapter houses and senior citizen centers help older Navajos in filling out and submitting applications.

Employees from Navajo Nation Shopping Centers Inc. offered free refills of hand sanitizer on June 10, 2020 in Shiprock. The company has been helping tribal members stay safe from COVID-19.

Although the committee voted five in favor and zero opposed to pass the bill, the starting date to apply remains pending.

However, officials have previously stated they will announce when enrolled tribal members can apply.

Delegate Carl Slater, who sponsored the bill, explained that the financial assistance is not a stimulus or per capita payment because an application is required under federal guidelines.

"It's better to think of it as a disaster relief payment," he said.

Byron Hoskie, business development specialist with Navajo Nation Shopping Centers Inc., sorts personal safety kits the company assembled and distributed on June 10, 2020 in Shiprock. The company has been helping tribal members stay safe from COVID-19.

Controller Pearline Kirk explained further that the U.S. Department of the Treasury guidelines for spending Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dollars through a hardship assistance program requires an application process for auditing purposes.

"This is, in my mind, as simple as we can get it," Kirk said about the four-page application.

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Throughout the committee meeting, she emphasized the need to follow guidelines and meeting the compliance requirement from the Treasury Department.

"Keep in mind these are federal financial assistance dollars," Kirk said.

Janet Begay, center, brought two containers for Navajo Nation Shopping Center Inc. employees to fill with hand sanitizer on June 10, 2020 in Shiprock. The shopping center is among those who have helped in the response to COVID-19 on the reservation.

A day earlier, the Health, Education and Human Services Committee amended the bill to have payment distributions go first to Navajos who are 65 years or older and to people with disabilities.

Still, delegates acknowledged that the pandemic has affected everyone.

"Everyone's experienced hardship, we know that, that's why we're trying to get this money out to help our people," Slater said.

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Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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