Nez defends stance for funding Navajo Nation's COVID-19 financial relief program

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez is defending his support to increase the balance of the program that will provide financial relief to enrolled tribal members affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The president's remarks came after he faced criticism for a memorandum written by his chief of staff that centered on how tribal government programs should handle unspent funds from the federal coronavirus relief bill, if those dollars were not used by Nov. 20.

In October, the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee approved the deadline for tribal government programs to use their portions from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Otherwise, unused amounts will roll into the Navajo Nation CARES Fund Hardship Assistance Program.

"First and foremost, I support hardship assistance funds for the Navajo people. My signature is on the resolution that approved those hardship funds and to allow other CARES Act funds to be diverted to that pot of money," Nez said in the statement released on Dec. 2 by his office.

He added that when the tribe received funding from the CARES Act, his administration proposed how to use the amount but the bill containing the proposal was amended by the Navajo Nation Council.

Navajo leaders eventually approved using the majority of the $716 million on projects such as water, electricity and broadband and telecommunication services to benefit tribal members.

"So far, thousands of our people have received electricity, water systems, bathroom additions, increased telecommunications access and much more," Nez said. "We are trying to work through the internal processes to help as many people as possible through these types of projects and through the hardship assistance funds."

The tribe remains under a Dec. 30 deadline set by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to use the $716 million.

The focus of the president's office memorandum was brought up by Delegate Raymond Smith in comments to Controller Pearline Kirk during the Budget and Finance Committee meeting on Dec. 1.

Kirk explained that she was told to review the letter – which had space reserved for her signature – but she did not sign it because it provided directions for tribal government programs that were opposite to what the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee authorized for reallocating CARES Act funds.

Earlier in the meeting, she explained that approximately 270,000 applications were submitted to the hardship assistance program by the Nov. 30 deadline.

She added that her office continues to validate Certificate of Indian Blood enrollment numbers and employees are contacting applicants when necessary.

"This is a huge program that we have undertaken," Kirk said.

The controller's office has stated that the financial relief checks will be released this month.

Committee members also wanted to know the status of reallocating $40.9 million that was intended for water projects to the hardship assistance program.

Cordell Shorty, contracting officer with the Office of Management and Budget, said that transfer would be completed on Dec. 2.

"Rest assure, that'll happen," Shorty said to the committee.

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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