TAHLEQUAH, Okla. —The Cherokee Nation announced a $332 million spending plan Thursday to use the tribe’s first portion of an $8 billion set aside in CARES Act funding from the US Treasury earmarked to help tribal governments recover from the impact of COVID-19.
The Cherokee Nation’s COVID-19 Respond, Recover and Rebuild spending plan will largely offset unbudgeted expenses due to coronavirus, protect employees from layoffs, add important safety measures to infrastructure, increase services for citizens and invest in strengthening Cherokee communities to speed recovery.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of all of us, including here in the Cherokee Nation and within our tribal communities. Faced with the worst crisis of our generation, we reacted and quickly adjusted to make tough but necessary decisions, taking steps to stabilize a more than $100 million revenue shortfall sustained from COVID-19 efforts,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “We also took bold and innovative measures to help our citizens and employees recover by ensuring they have a stable job and income. We strove to make the Cherokee Nation’s infrastructure safer, and we did everything in our power to offer relief to Cherokee citizens through our vital programs, allowing us to persevere through this trial, heal together, and rebuild as a stronger tribe and community. The COVID-19 Respond, Recover and Rebuild spending plan is the crucial next step in our approach to recovering and rebuilding the great Cherokee Nation.”
Approximately $100 million of the spending plan is allocated to restoring operations. Both Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses changed or suspended operations in March to safeguard from the spread of COVID-19, with employees working remotely or on paid administrative leave.
“Sadly, many employers across the country have had to make drastic program cuts and mass layoffs,” Cherokee Nation Treasurer Tralynna Scott said. “I’m very proud that the Cherokee Nation did not have to take the same route. We were able to continue paying our employees so they did not suffer financially, and we were not forced to cut critical tribal services because of this health crisis.”
Additionally, $100 million in CARES Act funding will be invested in an array of safety measures, such as purchasing thousands of personal protective equipment for employees’ safe return to work and adding facility space and retrofits for employee social-distancing. The Cherokee Nation will also invest in its IT infrastructure so that it is as prepared as possible should there be a second wave of COVID-19.
Another $100 million will be an investment in strengthening Cherokee communities and citizens to help with economic recovery and for ongoing response to COVID-19. The largest emergency food distribution effort in Cherokee Nation history, in response to COVID-19, helped some 45,000 Cherokee elders and individuals who needed assistance with food security. The tribe’s spending plan adds more funding for food services. The plan expands emergency services to assist Cherokee citizens with utilities or rental and housing payments and expands employment programs in order to help citizens get back to work.
“During this crisis, it was our mission to help our citizens and communities remain safe and receive the aid they needed during such a trying time,” said Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. “Together, we will begin to move forward by expanding tribal programs, services and grants. This spirit of helping Cherokees is in our nature, just as it was with our ancestors.”
The plan also creates grants that will assist community organizations with their response to COVID-19 including helping schools increase distance learning capabilities and providing relief funds to fire departments, police departments, food banks, Cherokee community organizations and will boost funds available to Council members to address COVID-19 response in their districts.
Another $32 million is earmarked to complete health projects, including the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation and Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center, and potentially establish a future epidemiological center.
The Attorney General’s office issued an opinion on federal CARES Act funding saying funds should be directed to necessary expenses and programs that support the recovery of the tribe from disruptions caused by COVID-19.
“Congress was clear that all funds provided from the tribal set-aside of the Coronavirus Relief Fund must be used for necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A ‘per capita’ scheme - which would split the funding equally between all citizens - is an illegal use of the funds. The funds must be tied to costs incurred due to the public health emergency the Nation is facing,” Attorney General Sara Hill said.
The spending plan is in the early process, with further details emerging to Council and citizens in the coming weeks. Plans are also subject to change as the pandemic and needs change.
The Council of the Cherokee Nation modified the tribe’s FY 2020 budget to accommodate the spending plan and will continue to monitor and provide input on the plan as it further develops. The Council approved the spending plan unanimously during Thursday’s council meeting.
“The U.S. Treasury is very specific on what our funding can be used for which guided our spending plan that helps every facet of our tribal nation,” Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said. “This is another example of the Cherokee people faced with adversity, but relying on our strength, unity and leadership of our administration, Tribal Council and CNB business arm, to pull together and get us through the crisis, and stronger as a result.”