Government

Several projects on horizon after ARPA funding bills prioritized

As the 10th Special Session’s focus shifted to prioritizing which bills seeking American Rescue Plan Act funding would be approved, the Seventh Osage Nation Congress and Executive Branch discussed which bills they agree should be funded.

The Nation received an initial disbursement of $108.3 million in ARPA funding and the Congress members filed various bills requesting funding for respective projects and endeavors for the special session. However, by the time the special session started in late July, the Congressional Office reported more than 20 appropriation bills seeking ARPA funding were filed and those request amounts totaled more than $195 million, prompting the priority discussion.

On July 30, the Congress and Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn – on behalf of the Executive Branch – discussed prioritizing which bills would be passed after the Congressional committees heard most of the filed bills and ARPA fund requests earlier that week. “Our first priority is direct assistance, our second priority is the housing projects for our elders, the third priority is assisted living,” Red Corn told Congress, adding other items included a $12.5 million bill to continue ongoing projects funded with 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money, the broadband internet projects and infrastructure improvements to the three Osage villages.

Altogether, Congress passed 15 appropriation bills seeking ARPA funding on Aug. 2 before ending the special session.

“As was stated during (July 30) Congress Committee as a Whole, our priority No. 1 is the Direct Assistance Program which has had in effect since last year,” Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said in a statement, referring to the 2020 direct assistance offered to all Osages from the CARES Act funding. “The difference between what the COVID Task Force, led by James Weigant, proposed months ago and what Congressman (Joe) Tillman filed, is that our COVID Task Force proposal is compliant with what we believe the federal rules will be and also, we do not believe every single Osage will end up making the application. After this, the priorities are Primary Residential Treatment Program (men, women, and juveniles), and then Senior Housing (for Hominy and Fairfax).”

Congress passed the largest ARPA-related bill ONCA 21-52 (sponsored by Congressman Joe Tillman), which is an Act to authorize and appropriate $35 million for direct assistance payments to the members of the Osage Nation. Tillman said he sponsored the bill as a way to offer assistance to Osages still impacted by COVID-19 pandemic disruptions including job losses, furloughs and other income losses. The relief aid is now available and offered by the Nation’s Financial Assistance Office.

Other APRA-related bills passed by Congress include:

Congresswoman Alice Goodfox sponsored ONCA 21-51 requesting $7,694,373 toward land purchase and design/ engineering and building costs for senior housing in Hominy. Goodfox noted there are only senior housing units in Pawhuska and it’s time to offer more in taking care of elders. Congresswoman Brandy Lemon offered similar comments in the session as she sponsored ONCA 21-55 requesting $8 million for similar costs to build senior housing in Fairfax on land the Nation has already purchased from the city.

Second Congressional Speaker Jodie Revard sponsored ONCA 21-58, which is an act to authorize and appropriate $12 million for an adult male and female Primary Residential Treatment (PRT) facility, an adolescent male and female PRT, a transitional living facility, and a counseling center with administrative and counseling offices. Revard said the current PRT facilities are small, outdated and “the conditions are not the greatest” and the facilities are about “helping people turn their lives around.”

ONCA 21-78 (Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt) is a $4 million appropriation bill seeking ARPA funding for land purchase, design/ engineering, and construction costs for an assisted living facility. Pratt said she sponsored the bill after visiting with elders who shared situations where they fell at home while alone and noted: “it’s time to do more” for elders.

Congresswoman Paula Stabler said having an assisted living facility “fills the gap” between independent living and nursing homes because assisted living staff help people maneuver and with other mobility needs.

ONCA 21-61 (Goodfox) is a $12.5 million appropriation bill to continue projects already underway and funded by the 2020 CARES Act funds that were distributed to the Nation. According to Weigant, who met with the Congressional Government Operations Committee during the session, plans call for ARPA funds to go toward operations for the Butcher House, Harvest Land, Emergency Management projects, Information Technologies projects, as well as those for language/ culture and exhibit costs at the ON Museum.

ONCA 21-80 (Congressman RJ Walker) is an appropriation bill for $4,750,000 for replacement and upgrades to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in Nation-owned buildings. Walker referred to the former First National Bank where the Congressional Office and some ON departments are located because the HVAC system is outdated and has broken down several times in recent years.

Casey Johnson, director of operations for the Executive Branch, said other buildings, including his office, have experienced similar HVAC issues, as well as the Welcome Center and Heritage Center. He added that replaced HVAC systems would also improve filtration that can reduce exposure to COVID-19 and other airborne illnesses.

ONCA 21-81 (Walker) appropriates $4 million to the Judicial Branch for improvements to the current Judicial Building and for the design, engineering and construction of a new Judicial building. ON Supreme Court Chief Justice Meredith Drent attended the virtual Congressional Government Operations Committee meeting and noted the round building currently housing the tribal courthouse has had issues with a leaking roof and black mold in recent years and now newer building standards are being recommended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drent said the current building’s size is not suitable for social distancing, especially for court proceedings. “We’re not going to get this chance again,” she said of using funds for newer court facilities because other court-related grant opportunities are competitive and difficult to obtain.

After the special session ended, Standing Bear signed the 15 ARPA-related bills to take effect.