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BIA/tribal budget advisory council meeting

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PHOENIX - In preparation for the 2006 budget, BIA representatives and tribal leaders met in Phoenix March 2 - 4 to discuss some of the concerns existing in Indian country and where financial shortfalls are occurring in the $2.3 billion annually allocated to the federal department.

All 12 geographic regions of American Indians and Alaskan Natives presented their concerns and BIA staff will utilize the information gathered and compare those departments where there is a greater economic need and are consistently troubling across the country.

Millions of dollars lying around unused

Almost $23 million in funds specified for Tribal Priority Allocations (TPA) have not been given out more than six months into fiscal year 2004.

The agenda of the three-day conference was barely initiated when the discussion became engulfed in carryover monies that haven't been distributed to local programs. Taking the brunt of the questions was the Chief Financial Officer for the BIA, Debbie Clark, who agreed with the national representatives but was left explaining this accounting discrepancy.

Carryovers are the funds programmed to be spent in the first of a two-year budget, she said, but are not used thus are "carried over" to the next fiscal year.

"Essentially what OMB [Office of Management and Budget] has said is there is two-year funding for certain programs but payroll and contracts should be contracted in a one-year time frame, give or take a few months," said Clark.

However, both Clark and tribal leaders agreed that leaves the problem of unused funds lying around. When that happens, a "use it or lose it" mentality happens and if money isn't spent, then it won't be budgeted for the next year.

Now more than half a year into the 2004 budget, tribes are concerned that when they finally do get this money, there won't be time to properly spend it. Darnell Maria from the Navajo's Ramah Band and representing the Southwest region of BIA cited an example of how $9,000 recently specified for a forestry job came so late to the tribe the job couldn't be filled.

"There wasn't time to advertise for this position and so what happens is the BIA takes the money back," Maria said.

One of the more vocal critics of the carryover process was Bonnie Akaka-Smith, the tribal chairwoman for the Pyramid Lake Paiute in Nevada. She failed to see why money budgeted for TPA doesn't reach the local level faster.

"For years there's always been talk about accountability from tribes from the higher-ups about how the money is spent but what about accountability for the higher-ups?" questioned Akaka-Smith.

"Money sitting in the coffers doesn't help Indian country and I'd like to see that money in Indian country," replied Clark.

An overriding concern at the conference was the initiation taken by OMB to put numerous federally-funded programs on the chopping block because they have been calculated to be inefficient for the money spent. While nothing was specifically targeted out of the annual budget for BIA, tribes were cognizant of protecting whatever money is forthcoming and certainly don't want to see it not spent.

From OMB's perspective, as was described during the session by Washington BIA members, money not used is an indication the program is either not managed properly or is receiving too much funding and there's room to cutback.

"It's imposed on all the agencies by OMB because we're actually asked to justify them when we ask for increases," said Aurene Martin, deputy assistant secretary for BIA.

To avoid miscommunication regarding funds that are available, the panel initially chaired a motion to "Request regional directors work with tribal members in a timely manner to justify expenses in order to avoid money going back to the Treasury." Maria then proposed an addendum that also requested the communication also flow more efficiently from Washington.

Easily the motion passed although Maria reminded tribes they ultimately have to take the initiative in requesting money.

"The tribes need to follow through with these actions taken. If the tribes don't follow through, the BIA will make decisions on that matter," said Maria.

Schools to receive more attention

Schools will be the emphasis of the Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP).

That summarized the wish list of the new director of OIEP, Edward Parisian, who returned to the position six months ago after heading up the department from 1989 - 1992. With 30 years experience in Indian education as a teacher, principal and superintendent, he has seen the grassroots and wants his bureaucracy to return there.

Laying out his priorities for the 2006 budget, Parisian listed first the 184 elementary and high schools where more than 47,000 students attend. Next were the more than two dozen tribal colleges the BIA funds. In previous years, Parisian stated, the colleges were often low in terms of financial importance, something that didn't seem right.

"This is the light at the end of the tunnel [colleges] and we have to make this a priority and justify there are successes here," said Parisian about Indian education as a whole.

Overseeing a fiscal year 2004 budget of $350 million, Parisian highlighted where some of the spending will occur with an approximate $3 million increase for 2005. This included $1.75 million for the Special Higher Education Grant to be used for students pursuing graduate degrees and a pilot project to help those graduates find employment with the BIA or individual tribes.

Saying investment needs to extend to university students, BIA deputy assistant secretary Aurene Martin said there are areas to be targeted with new employees including trust and education programs.

"No Child Left Behind needs special training requirements. Plus, tribes looking for specific positions will be helped," said Martin.

The No Child Left Behind Act is aimed at measuring certain criteria for improving student achievement that incorporates some standardized testing and detailed data collection. President of the Navajo Nation, Joe Shirley, disagreed with this federal law because of how tribes have been left to their own resources.

"We're having the hardest time on Navajo land and it goes back to the lack of funding and we need monies to make this work," Shirley said.

Parisian disagreed and suggested while there may be flaws in the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the principle remains sound.

"The vision needs to be here but it needs to be tweaked and we can't lose sight of accountability [of schools and teacher] of what has been needed in Indian education for many years," stated Parisian.

Leonard Chee, the Navajo tribe's chair of the education committee, expressed concern about how previous letters to OIEP had been ignored and were without acknowledgement. Parisian noted one of the six initiatives he seeks to implement includes better communication from the federal level to regional and local departments.

"Whether they like what we have to say or not, at least people want to have their letters responded to," Parisian said.

Detailed in Parisian's report was the method on how older schools are prioritized for construction or renovation. From the three lists compiled by local and regional directors plus education line officers, buildings appearing consistently are then passed along to outside third parties such as architects and engineers who make other recommendations. Forty-one schools across the nation received funding for makeovers on Feb. 25.

A motion was also passed for the allocation of $2 million annually starting in 2006 to be used for drug and alcohol abuse education programs. This would be a sharp increase from the $343,000 line item in 2005 and this program would be non-discretionary, meaning it cannot be eliminated.

Indian police force to drop in size

Within three years, there will be a loss of almost 30 percent of the police officers located in Indian country.

This surprising cut was announced by Robert Ecoffey, the director of the BIA's Office of Law Enforcement Services. At a time when drug trafficking and the threat of terrorist activities plague the nation, tribal leaders were shocked to learn 759 police positions on reservations will lose their federal funding by 2006.

Through the program of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) under the Department of Justice, $57 million will be chopped for 383 positions to expire before the end of the fiscal year 2004. That will be followed by 253 in 2005 and 123 in 2006.

Neither Ecoffey nor David Anderson, the assistant secretary of BIA, were available for comment. However, during Ecoffey's address he stated this decision runs contrary to his department's recommendation that an additional 1,500 Native American officers be hired to complement the approximately 2,700 who presently patrol the reservations.

Immediately this cutback drew the condemnation of tribal leaders.

"Indian country can't take a drop in law enforcement," said Tex Hall, President of NCAI.

Hall said this decision flies in the face of common sense when population surveys and censuses have clearly shown the growth on reservations. Should the economies on tribal lands continue to remain stagnant, noted Hall, the attraction to either take or sell illegal substances is always a threat by the large number of unemployed and impoverished. His estimation of increased crime is therefore natural with the decreased police presence.

As local police force numbers will be taking a direct hit, several regions in their state of their addresses described the dire conditions under which their officers are working. Besides the lack of manpower, poor communications in remote areas and overcrowding in jails hamper the effectiveness in preventing crime or have placed officers in dangerous situations.

However, if Washington expresses an attitude that crime on reservations is a local problem, other tribal leaders are quick to point out what often occurs in tribes is of national interest. In addition to a reduction in the police, there has been little assistance from other federal programs.

While there is a President's Request for the 2005 budget to increase the number of officers by 24 to be stationed specifically in the Tohono O'odham reservation that encompasses Organ Pipe Cactus National Park bordering Mexico, other large tracts of tribal lands close to international borders remain vacant.

"If Homeland Security isn't to include tribes, it's like giving a free ticket to drug traffickers and terrorists because they'll know we don't have the money, manpower or equipment to control our borders and [those of] the United States," Hall said.

Anderson lays out communication strategy

Bombarded by paperwork, the assistant secretary of BIA was pleased with the thoroughness of presentations by regional representatives.

David Anderson, who was appointed to this position in September, had dozens of booklets and binders presented to him, several were inches thick. As he and his staff will review this material before the next annual gathering on March 23 in Washington, he suggested in the future, reports could be shortened with individual requests condensed into paragraphs, not pages.

"What do I do with their information and these are questions I have to ask myself: What happens now and how do we use this?" Anderson stated.

Running with a theme of becoming better storytellers, Anderson wanted tribal leaders to illustrate the struggles and even the triumphs of reservation life for the outside world, including politicians. There was even the concept of creating a basic template that would provide consistency and clarity when applying for grants.

"We're recognizing some programs year after year to be funded and how can we, with a real public relations problem, get Congress to visit our needs," said Anderson. "We need to express in a graphic detail our problems but also highlight the successes with the funding we have received and justify why we need other monies."

This slight philosophical change, while blunt, drew immediate questioning from some of the tribal leaders. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley believed this was not the time to deviate from the work that has been accomplished during the last decade.

"I have a hard time understanding of what you mean by graphic detail. We've done this time and time again with no avail and I sure hope this has not been an exercise in futility," Shirley said.

Unlike a one-paragraph summary, Shirley's idea to highlight Indian country problems was more grandiose, even if it was a passing thought.

"Maybe we need our own million man and woman march. We have to have our voices heard beyond just today."

Anderson however made his comments based upon trends in federal funding. Pledging his support to those he's serving, Anderson stated he wouldn't have taken the position if he didn't think a difference could be made.

Impassionate and expressing sincerity, Anderson held himself out to be answerable to these tribal leaders on this budget advisory council. If vague on ideas, he wanted to be accountable.

"What we've done in the past hasn't worked and we keep losing money. I am right there with you for your needs but I don't have [all] the answers," the assistant secretary said.

Initiating this final discussion before adjournment, Chief Jim Gray of the Osage reservation said no matter how the problem is examined, budget cuts don't happen in isolation of the bigger picture. A chain reaction occurs once funding is slashed or eliminated from one segment, it then carries forward into another realm.

"When you under fund one issue, it spills one after another [into another] and it's not like you can pinpoint one area to make it stop," Gray said.

"We're still not going to back off the issue that we're billions of dollars under funded."