More than 500 Ute Mountain Ute tribal members have signed a petition urging the tribal council to distribute a portion of federal CARES Act aid directly to community members.
Organizers are campaigning for the council to give out individual payments of $1,000 to each adult and $500 to each child under 18.
The tribe has been allocated $14 million in CARES Act funding to assist with the pandemic health emergency, according to tribe officials.
But the council hesitates to use the federal pandemic relief money toward individual per-capita payments because of audit concerns.
In a letter to the tribal council, Ute Mountain Chairman Manuel Heart said individual payments might not be appropriate because the funding is subject to an audit to verify it was used toward pandemic-related hardships. The money is part of the U.S. government’s $2.2 trillion package to help businesses, workers and health care.
The tribe is seeking legal guidance from tribal attorneys and the U.S. Department of the Treasury on spending rules in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, he said.
About 50 tribal members attended a potluck and petition rally at Veterans Park Thursday in Towaoc discuss how to spend the money.
Discussion centered on financial impacts, job loss and direct payments.
“There is a lot of hardship right now in our community, and we are saying to our leaders ‘Help us out with some financial aid,’” said petition organizer Jana Mills. “It should go to the people, because everyone is struggling right now.”
The Ute Mountain Casino, a main employer for the tribe, closed in March because of the pandemic. Day labor jobs depended on by many residents have been unavailable, Mills said.
“The travel restrictions for tribal members and a curfew are keeping people stuck at home. It’s limiting work opportunities,” said tribal member Jolene Eyetoo.
“The petition is a message to the council on the will of the people,” said organizer Angelita Berry. “Bills are piling up, people need money for food, utilities and supplies. School is around the corner, and the funds are needed to buy supplies for the children. They especially need computers for the transition to more online learning.”
Petitioners said they have been negotiating with the tribal council on how to distribute the funds, but the decision-making process is taking too long, Berry said. Their request of $1,000 for adults and $500 children totals about $2 million.
The Ute Mountain Tribe has about 2,134 enrolled members, including 1,700 adults and 400 children, she said.
CARES Act funding to tribes is determined by census data. Census enumerators were scheduled to begin the follow-up process this week, traveling to each house that has not responded to the census to help fill out the questionnaire.
Mills said the suggestion that only adults receive financial aid “is not right because the children are also counted in the census, and the total (aid package) is the reason for the specific amount was allocated to the tribe.”
In a July 28 letter to the council, Heart said officials were developing a plan to use the funds and said the petition for individual payments was “premature.”
If audits revealed the funds were not spent appropriately, it might have to be paid back, he said.
“At this time, I cannot honor the petition, we have to make sure it is legal to give it out in that matter,” Heart stated in the letter. “We are working on plans to cover necessary needs based on COVID-19.”
The council is considering using the funding for tribal members who apply for specific needs, including utilities, food, housing, education and vehicles. A debit card would be issued to aid recipients to document how the money was spent.
At the rally, tribal elder Rose Paytiamo admonished the crowd for not showing up at tribal council meetings to air their demands.
“500 signed the petition in support, but nobody showed up at the meeting,” she said. “These few ladies can’t do it all, they need you to back them up. Go to the meeting, wear your mask, tell them we want our money. You need to all go, stand outside if necessary, not watch it on TV then complain about it on Facebook.”
Other ideas for the funds are to improve internet service on the reservation for online education, improve infrastructure and open a grocery store in Towaoc.
The CARES Act provided $8 billion to be allocated among the 574 federally recognized Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages.