Earlier this month, the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department announced it would be rescinding funding awards previously announced for Native organizations trying to help northwestern New Mexico communities recover from a large coal plant shutdown.
Despite agency cabinet secretary-designee James Mountain’s commitment to reach out personally to talk about it, original award recipients haven’t heard anything in the two weeks since. Most, if not all, aren’t sure what happens next.
This all comes following a major coal plant shutdown in the Four Corners region in 2022. The state received millions of dollars to distribute to organizations and affected communities, and the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department got $1.8 million to hand out to address specific issues on tribal land.
In July, Mountain told lawmakers his agency chose five Indigenous organizations and centers to distribute the $1.8 million to: Shiprock Traditional Farmers Cooperative, Native Renewables, Diné Introspective, Northern New Mexico Indigenous Farmers, and Diné Centered Research and Evaluation.
“We plan on expediting and getting those moneys out here,” he said.
The organizations never got the money. They might not at all.
The five awardees weren’t formally notified about their grants until September when Mountain sent the award letters out. He told lawmakers a week later that questions about procurement processes delayed getting the funds out.
This month, he said the same formal procurement process is restarting things. He announced at an Oct. 12 meeting held by an energy community advisory committee that his agency would have to rescind the awards already announced. He said the state needs to go through a process he said he thought had already happened.
Mountain stepped in as cabinet secretary-designee earlier this year, and the funding recommendations were underway at the Indian Affairs Department before his arrival in the role.
Mountain said he would personally contact the original awardees to “further this discussion.” Most, if not all, of the organizations haven’t heard anything since, Source NM confirmed after speaking with four of five of the chosen projects’ leaders.
At the public meeting, Mountain apologized for the “misstep” and said the agency is working internally to make sure “these things do not happen again.”
The chosen project leaders took in the news with a mix of shock, surprise and disappointment at the meeting, which was the first time many heard the state would be rescinding the awards.
Hazel James-Tohe, a project lead for Diné Centered Research and Evaluation’s proposal, walked into the meeting thinking she’d hear about how the award process would move forward. Instead, James-Tohe (Diné) was surprised to learn her organization wouldn’t get the $350,000 the state promised to help with initiatives on sustainable farming.
She had already forwarded the award letter to her group’s board of directors, she said, and then had to tell them later she didn’t know where things stood.
“It’s really embarrassing,” she said. “And the embarrassment is on the state of New Mexico.”
Northern New Mexico Indigenous Farmers was expecting $250,000 to support farming practices with an overall goal to boost food sovereignty among Native communities. When CEO Anita Hayes heard the money wouldn’t be coming through, she questioned what the affected communities are supposed to do now.
Hayes (Navajo) said when she told her community about the award, people were ecstatic.
“And now I sit, wondering what’s going to happen,” she said at the meeting.
The Indian Affairs Department awarded another food sovereignty project led by Diné Introspective $305,000. Executive director Kyle Jim said it took a moment for the news to settle in that the state would not be delivering the money.
“It was just shocking and outrageous,” he told Source NM.
Jim (Navajo) said Diné Introspective was planning to get work started with the funding in a few months so staff could clean out the ditches and prepare the land before the growing season in the spring. That’s unlikely now.
“Everything’s just haywire right now,” he said.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
People have been waiting to find out about and get this money for years, Hayes told Source NM on Wednesday. The organizations submitted their project proposals in 2020.
Hayes said Mountain could’ve at least met with the awardees beforehand to talk through any options to commit to the promised funds, but he didn’t. He didn’t even follow up with the original recipients afterward.
“I honestly think that they would have the courtesy to bring us together,” Hayes said.
Hayes said some people aren’t taking it lightly that the Indian Affairs Department is walking back on these promised funds. Jim said some organizations that applied for the funds have been talking about lawsuits.
James-Tohe said the Indian Affairs Department should just deliver the awards like they announced. Another procurement process could take years, she said, and the original recipients could get lost in the process.
“We need to get everyone to know how we’re being treated,” she said.
Chili Yazzie is a staff member with Shiprock Traditional Farmers Cooperative, which was expecting $400,000. He said it’s not fair the state agency plans to reopen the process for anyone to apply and get the already awarded funds.
“I can say that it’s been a breach of promise,” he said.
Jim said he thinks the state could now prioritize giving the money to energy projects instead of agricultural initiatives, based on the community advisory committee’s recommendation for energy projects to get money from a separate pot of funding.
State to decide before 2024 where to send $6 million for northwestern NM economic development
Four of the five originally chosen projects for the Indian Affairs Department funds were agriculture-related. The fifth project promised funding was Native Renewables, which would’ve used its $500,000 grant for solar energy.
Yazzie shared some of Jim’s concerns and said favoritism might play into what organizations get the money this time, based on disagreements he and other community members had with the commission’s other project recommendations.
Jason Sandel, a convener on the community advisory committee, said the commission didn’t know until after its November 2022 meeting the state would have to go through the formal procurement process.
“That’s been driven very late in this process but is being pushed forward in an abundance of caution and making sure that we’re following the law,” he said.
The committee adjusted the resolution passed the same day on Oct. 12 to recommend the Indian Affairs Department still award the five originally chosen organizations the money.
Mountain asked the community advisory committee at the meeting for clearer communication and guidance moving forward.
“I couldn’t agree more with the lack of communication and understanding and confusion around how these funds were supposed to be dispersed,” he said.