TUBA CITY—Navajo Nation Economic Development Director Tony Skrelunas recently hosted a five-hour meeting attended by over thirty members of the local Tuba City business community and regional elected representatives. President Kelsey Begaye presided over the meeting which was held at David White Eagle’s Hogan Restaurant. Skrelunas set up the meeting as a ‘town hall,’ giving a highly detailed accounting of the recommendations given at the Navajo Nation Economic Summit held in Flagstaff last May and his department’s initiatives to capitalize on those recommendations. The feedback he received from the local business community was brisk and animated.
It has been well known that starting and maintaining a business on the reservation was somewhere between difficult and impossible. The would-be small business owner was faced with long waits for permit after permit, inadequate information on what the regulations are, and an inability to get standard business loans from banks. Businesses outside the reservation can be up and running within a month with all the necessary services such as water, sewer, and electric hookups provided. Within the reservations the wait can be years and the business owner has to provide and pay for lines, and if it’s done wrong, the permit can be revoked. When it’s all over the business owner doesn’t actually own the business; the tribe does.
Myra Draper, owner and operator of Draper Glassworks in Tuba City and Kayenta, illustrated the point. “When I started here in Tuba City, the place I had to work out of was just a shed. The tribe didn’t help with anything. I put in electricity. I paid for water lines. Over the years, I’ve improved that land. I’ve added new buildings. All that has been paid for by me. I couldn’t get help from any banks, because I have no equity.”
Coconino County Supervisor Louise Yellowman was present both in her official capacity and also as a small business owner herself.
“In 1975 we were trying to get the many clearances that we needed for right of ways. The NTUA clearance took 3 years to get for the water lines. We almost lost a loan because of it. We were actually paying on the loan for the water before we had the water. Everything else had to be put on hold. We had to dig and lay the water lines ourselves. Two contractors left because putting the BIA, NTUA, and the Tribe together was impossible. Then because people who had relocated from the JUA (Joint Use Area) were desperate for their house, and they moved in without water. The Environmental Health Department almost got our lease taken away because people were living there without water. Even after the water was in place, there were more hurdles. The BIA demands bonds and insurance against wildfire even though there’s just dirt there, and no water hydrants. If any of the paperwork gets lost in the tribal offices you almost have to do it all over again.”
President Begaye described five directions that the Tribe is taking to improve the situation.
“First we need to always remember our Traditional philosophy to Walk in Beauty. Second, Title 2 needs to be scrapped. We’re working on government reform. Third, we need financial independence. We’re working with the banks now. We need to limit the red-tape —cut out the BIA for one. There’s a bill to do that(Senate Bill #2665), in the US Senate now. After it passes there it will go onto the House. Right now we have something like 42 hurdles to get over to get a business going. Hopefully when we get through with these reforms there will only be twelve. That may not seem great, but it’ll be a lot better.”
The President described the Economic Summit as the first of the Navajo Nation’s 12 proposed initiatives to be achieved, and next is to put together an Economic Development Commission in the Tribal Council to help put into effect the recommendations that came out of that Summit.
“Whatever you do” the President warned, “involve the EPA from day one so you don’t get caught up to with problems later.”
After the Economic Summit itself, the other 11 initiatives Director Skrelunas listed were on business site leasing, organizing a real-estate development corporation to professionally manage lands leased to businesses, an initiative on taxes and incentives, tackling the issues of sovereign immunity and the the Navajo Nation Court System, developing business retention programs, financing and lending, infrastructure, comprehensive land-use planning, becoming direct owners of the Navajo Nation’s sub-surface resources such as oil, coal, and gas, use of the Navajo Nation’s ranches and private lands, and maximizing the potential of the several major tourism development projects that are either planned or already under way.
Of most concern to local business owners was the issue of taxes. Everyone agreed that educating the public on the importance of supporting locally-owned businesses needs to be a priority and also to inform people that traveling to another town to avoid a sales tax is often more expensive then the tax itself.
See Town Hall, page 2
“I have customers” said Myra Draper,”that live in Kayenta who ask at the desk ‘Will I be taxed on what I buy here?’, and when I tell them yes, they get back in their trucks and drive all the way here to Tuba to buy the same stuff just so they won’t be taxed... If we have a sales tax all over the reservation, they’ll just go further all the way to Flagstaff or another bordertown. There’s taxes there, but they’ll go anyway.”
While the Tribe’s proposed initiative to develop a small claims or business court to add to the Navajo Nation’s court system had visible popular support, Labor Relations Counsel Timothy Joe of Window Rock pleaded for a different route to be taken.
“We already have the most sophisticated court system of any Tribe in the world. Don’t add a new layer of bureaucracy to the system with a business court. It will only make the red-tape worse. We need to review Title 7, the frame work is already there, it just needs to be fixed. We need to get qualified jurists on the bench. Right now we have some judges who can’t even speak Navajo. We need to have judges with elected terms of two to four years, so that if we get a bad one we can replace him. Right now when someone gets an appointment to the bench, they’re there for life or until they decide to retire.”
In reference to the effect of red-tape Joe added “We have to make it easier to succeed with a legitimate business here, because we’re losing our best and brightest to crime. Right now bootlegging is the most successful small business we have. That’s not healthy.”
While the agenda on these initiatives is staggering, every individual piece is realistic and achievable provided that there is enough consensus among the people to keep their political representatives motivated.