Navajo Utah Commission receive updates from state lobbyist, UDOT and others

Members of the Navajo Utah Commission received an update from their hired state legislative lobbyist, a report from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), and discussed chapter manager pay at their latest meeting.

Members of the Navajo Utah Commission include tribally elected Chapter officials and Navajo Nation Council members that represent Utah Navajo.

At their February 8 meeting, the commission heard from Moroni Benally, the lobbyist hired by the Navajo Nation for the 45-day Utah state legislative session. 

Benally reported on his work in the legislative body, including sharing with state legislators the priorities established by the commission for the legislative session.

Benally also reported on conversations with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which expressed interest in providing donations to the Gentle Ironhawk Shelter. The church also approached Benally about a potential oral history project with Navajo Elders.

Benally also reported that the Utah Food Bank has an interest in a food pantry in Aneth and that he met with Congressmen John Curtis about an Aneth substation.

In addition to meetings, Benally reported on commission priorities that are in need of appropriations. Projects include funding for the Gentle Ironhawk Shelter, funds to help plan capital projects from the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, and funds for the Utah State University (USU) Monument Valley building.

Information about those proposed projects and others with impact in San Juan County can be found in the February 16 issue of the San Juan Record.

At their February 8 meeting, the Navajo Utah Commission passed a resolution requesting $4 million in funding for an Environmental Impact Study on a proposed road connecting Navajo Mountain to Oljato and across the San Juan River to Highway 276.

The commission also passed a resolution reaffirming support and approval of the San Juan County Commission redistricting plans passed on December 21, 2021, including the recommendation from the county's hired redistricting expert for the commission districts and the recommendation from the Navajo Human Rights Commission for the San Juan School Board.

Another resolution passed by the Navajo Utah Commission expressed support of the Utah State University Community Health Worker Certification Program in San Juan County.

The commission heard from Ryan Benally, the program coordinator for the Community Health Worker Certification.

Benally explained that Community Health Workers are public health workers who act as go-betweens for medical facilities and clients or patients at home. 

The certification program is free to residents, paid for by a learn and work grant from the Utah Governors Office of Economic Development and a Perkins V Special Progress grant from the Utah State Board of Education.

Both in-person lessons and online self-paced options are available for the 9 to 12-week program that starts its next round on February 28.

At the February 8 meeting, the commission also received an update from Monte Aldridge, Region 4 Deputy Director for the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT).

Aldridge gave an update on planned $78 million updates to state routes 162 and 262. A federal grant will cover $48 million of the project, with $25 million coming from UDOT.

The Environmental Impact Study for the project is slated to be completed this month, meaning securing the right-of-way process is next. Aldridge was advised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the process could take between six and 24 months.

Depending on timing, road work could begin as soon as Spring 2023 or as late as January 2024, with anticipated completion in 2025 or 2026.

The project will provide safety upgrades to the two roadways including widening of shoulders, updating guardrails, and improving pavement.

Aldridge also noted the project will create a roundabout at the highway intersection in Montezuma Creek, create a livestock underpass between Aneth and Montezuma Creek, and provide fiber optic infrastructure.

At the meeting, Aneth Chapter representative Brenda Brown asked if the work would extend from the highway to the bridge by the post office. Aldridge reported that he would look into it but added UDOT is not allowed to spend funds for off-highway local roads.

At the meeting, the Navajo Utah Commission also heard from the San Juan Clean Energy Foundation. The foundation was created by Energy Fuels, which operates the White Mesa Uranium Processing mill in San Juan County.

Foundation consultant Simone Griffin explained they are seeking input from local communities including Navajo Chapters about how to allocate funds in the county. The foundation received a $1 million donation from Energy Fuels at its inception in the fall of 2021, with anticipation of providing ongoing annual funding equal to one percent of future revenues at the White Mesa Mill.

Mexican Water Chapter President Curtis Yanito and Teec Nos Pos Chapter President Kenny Victor expressed interest in using the funds for maintenance and upkeep of already purchased chapter equipment.

When asked about the timing of the distribution of funds, Griffin explained that they are still in the process of creating the foundation board and its mission, with hopes of being in place by the end of the year.

The Navajo Utah Commission also discussed pay for Chapter Managers. During his report, Clarence Rockwell, Executive Director of the Navajo Utah Commission, explained that during the meeting on February 8, five of the seven Utah chapters were without Chapter Managers and or planners.

Commissioner Yanito brought up the fact that pay is often low for applicants with the right qualifications.

Rockwell agreed and suggested a need for the Navajo Utah Chapters to seek tribal funding to hire a project manager.

The project manager would help organize and move projects forward on the Navajo Utah strip, with the timing of interest, especially with large amounts of federal ARPA funds available for projects on the reservation.

Council Delegate Nathaniel Brown, who represents Dennehotso, Chilchinbeto, and Kayenta chapters on the Navajo Nation Council, recommended holding strategic meetings to plan for projects, understand guidelines, and coordinate between chapter officials and council delegates.

“Right now this is the most money that the Navajo Nation has gotten,” said Brown. “But we need chapter managers, we need officials to put up their sleeves, we need delegates to be involved in this conversation.”

Brown added several times that he doesn’t want Utah Chapters to miss out on any funds.

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