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A sign of the times

WASHINGTON – New signs are popping up on reservations nationwide. Not with directions to the latest powwow – but, rather, noting that certain projects on tribal lands have been funded by the Obama administration stimulus plan.

The signs tend to be innocuous in appearance, but it’s their cost, even the slightest amount, that has some tribal citizens concerned, especially in context of struggling Native American economies.

“I just wonder how much it all ends up costing if tribes have to pay to put a sign up every time they get some federal dollars,” said Faye Lalonde, a tribal citizen who lives near the Bay Mills Community in Michigan. “Is this the way it’s always going to be now? And how much will it cost over the long run?”

The cost of the signs, mandated by the Obama administration in some cases, and strongly encouraged in others, is gaining increased scrutiny across the country – and partisan politics have quickly become a part of the mix.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., has made it a crusade to denounce the signs, saying their main effect is to unwisely take money out of taxpayers’ pockets to promote the Obama administration.

“These signs are a waste of taxpayer dollars and the administration shouldn’t require Native American communities, or any other community for that matter, to use them,” said Dave Natonski, a spokesman for Schock.

“To paraphrase Everett Dirksen, a million here and a million there and before you know it, you’re talking real money. These signs are nothing more than propaganda, and no money should be spent on them.”

Schock said the signs are unable to be reused, which he believes makes their cost even more burdensome.

Lalonde, who voted for President Barack Obama, is less concerned about the politics of the situation than the cost.

“Everyone needs to realize just how little federal money many tribes are getting, so it should be spent wisely.”

The precise cost of the signs isn’t known, but Republican attention to the issue has encouraged an investigation by the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, which is expected to release a report about the cost of the signs soon.

Republican estimates indicate that at least $1 million in stimulus funding has been spent in Ohio alone to date, and Illinois has spent $640,000, according to Schock’s office.

Tribal sign estimates have not been offered to date, but it is known that many of the nation’s 565 federally recognized tribes have received millions of dollars in stimulus funding since 2009. Common sense dictates that a small percentage of those funds would have gone to paying for signs to promote the spending, given that the signs are a requirement from some agencies that have funded tribal projects.

Various state officials have indicated that the stimulus signs, depending on size, have ranged in cost from $1,200 to $8,300.

The signs often include some arrangement of the words, “Funded By: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act/ Barack Obama, President.”

The law does not explicitly say they are required, but many agencies have issued guidance policies suggesting them, or even mandating them.

In early August the signs issue gained attention at the Native American programs of the U.S. Department of Urban Development after a Government Accountability Office review found that the programs had changed their policy from requiring signs to encouraging signs.

Andrea Meade, a spokeswoman for HUD, said the relaxed rules from the Native programs did not come about because tribal grantees found the cost of the signs to be problematic.

“No, signs were not proving burdensome for tribal grantees. The program office relaxed their policy after HUD issued agency-wide guidance to all programs specifically suggesting that signs should not be required of grantees. HUD decided in the end that while signage is a useful tool for transparency, it should not be required.”

But Schock, for one, does believe the signs add an unnecessary burden to grantees. He has spoken with recipients in his district who believed that if they did not pay to put up the signs, their stimulus funds could be in jeopardy.

Obama administration officials said partisan criticism of the signs is wrong, adding that they are intended to increase transparency by plainly illustrating how stimulus funds are being spent.

“Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will bear a newly-designed emblem,” explained a March 2009 directive from the Office of Management and Budget. “The emblem is a symbol of President Obama’s commitment to the American people to invest their tax dollars wisely to put Americans back to work.” Some agencies used OMB’s directive to establish their own guidance policies to grantees.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the actual cost of the signs to Indian country.