Tribe hopes FEMA will reimburse for water line repairs

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, February 21, 2013

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W hen water lines froze and broke last month, repair crews from Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and other entities went into action repairing the more than 3,000 reported outages.

Now the tribe is looking at reimbursing the tribal enterprise for the costs of repairs and system replacements it paid for from its own funding.

The Navajo Nation Council's Budget and Finance Committee approved a $2.8 million loan with Key Bank during its meeting Tuesday that will be issued to NTUA for repairing frozen water lines and other system repairs throughout the reservation.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and the tribe's Commission on Emergency Management declared a state of emergency in January, followed by declarations issued by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez this month.

On Tuesday, Shelly sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting a major disaster declaration for the tribe.

"The nation is beyond its capabilities to make an effective response to the disaster caused to its water system and infrastructure," Shelly wrote.

The letter also describes the impact the outage had on residents, business and health care facilities. It also outlines the steps the tribe and NTUA have been taking to address the situation.

Under an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, federally recognized tribes can apply directly to the President of the United States for emergency aid.

If Obama approves the tribe's request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can reimburse up to 75 percent of the costs associated with the emergency water projects.

"It looks highly favorable that we are going to get that money back," said Rose Whitehair, director of the tribe's Department of Emergency Management.

But controller Mark Grant cautioned the committee that if Obama does not approve the request and no funds are made available by FEMA, the tribe would still be responsible for repaying the loan and for reimbursing NTUA.




Committee member Nelson BeGaye (Lukachukai/Rock Point/Round Rock/Tsaile-Wheatfields/Tsé Ch'ízhí) recalled that Shelly did not want to apply for any additional loans but now he was supporting this request.

Heather L. Clah, Shelly's legal counsel, said the president was on board because the situation was declared an emergency and because the tribe does not have an emergency fund.

But the president's definition of an emergency did not sit well with committee member Jonathan Nez (Navajo Mountain/Oljato/Shonto/Ts'ah bii Kin).

"I feel like there are other emergencies happening right now on the Navajo Nation that can benefit from this," Nez said then added that some tribal employees continue to work in cramped spaces due to the closure of Administration Buildings No. 1 and No. 2 or are working in dilapidated buildings.

Rather than seeking the $2.8 million loan, the committee has the authority to approve a loan for up to $15 million under the Bond Financing Act then use the money to address those issues, he said.

The easy part is approving the loan, said Committee Chair LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad/Tsé Daa K'aan/Upper Fruitland), but the payback needs to be taken into consideration.

In the case of the $2.8 million loan, 75 percent of loan would be paid back by FEMA funds but he wanted to know if NTUA has a plan in place to repay the loan if FEMA funds are not administered.

"We definitely don't want to go down the road five years from now and say, 'Hey NTUA hasn't paid us back or FEMA hasn't paid us back.' We already got hundreds of millions of dollars that's due back to the nation," he said.

But Whitehair assured the committee that Obama would approve the tribe's request because representatives from FEMA Region 9 visited the area and assessed the situation in addition to helping the tribe with the application process.

The situation "far exceeds" the threshold for declaring an emergency at the federal level, she said.

The bill passed, 4-0, along with a directive to have the controller's office, the president's office and Navajo Department of Justice examine finance options for Administration Buildings No. 1 and No. 2 and other tribal buildings that need renovation and present that information to the committee in March.

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