While the possibility of the federal government reopening inched closer this morning, the Chippewa Cree Tribe at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation has prepared for the worse this week.
The tribal government declared a financial disaster Tuesday due to the federal government shutdown, warning that nearly all tribal offices will be closed and almost all programs halted if the budget stalemate in Congress isn't resolved by Thursday.
The central Montana tribe already has cut back hours, furloughed staff and limited services after federal money for tribal programs was cut off following the Oct. 1 shutdown, spokesman Wade Colliflower said.
Loren “Bum” Stiffarm, chief administrative officer at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, said Monday he was presenting a contingency plan about dealing with the shutdown to the Fort Belknap Indian Community tribal council for approval, but had not returned calls asking for details about the plan by printing deadline this morning.
Fort Belknap announced at the start of the shutdown that it was using tribal funds to continue services as long as possible.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has shut down operations, with a skeleton staff operating last week at its Fort Belknap offices, which are not open to the public.
At Rocky Boy, the tribal government says it has tried to extend its operations as long as possible. Tribal court judge Donna Running Wolf said Monday she has offered to fill in to help keep the courts running, saying she could take on some work as prosecutor as well.
“We can try to keep the court open,” Running Wolf said.
The tribe’s Business Committee member and budget committee chairman, Ted Whitford, said last week in a interview on the tribal radio station KHEW that the tribal government took action early to reduce expences.
“We are mostly reliant on federal funds, and with the shutdown funds are no longer being forwarded to the tribe,” he said.
Whitford added that even if the federal government restores operations, it could take time to get back to full operations.
“Once the government shutdown does end, funds will not be restored immediately,” he said. “There is going to be a delay in us receiving funds, so count on a delay in restored funding and delay in when employees will be called back.”
And the tribe's financial outlook has turned dire as the shutdown has dragged on, causing tribal leaders to call for drastic measures if a deal isn't reached by Thursday.
The issue hadn’t been resolved as of this morning, although U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H ., said this morning she understood Senate leaders had reached an agreement to end the shutdown and raise the federal debt limit.
The Chippewa Cree Tribe made its declaration Tuesday morning and created an emergency operations center to plan for the cutbacks, Colliflower said.
That has left those living on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation to hope for the best and brace for the worst.
"I think they are holding their breath hoping something will get done," Colliflower said.
Whitford said in the radio interview that the tribe is hopeful the Democrats and Republicans in Congress can pass temporary continuing resolution to reopen the government at previous funding levels will happen, adding that he doubts a full budget agreement can come anytime soon.
“With the federal shutdown, this is way beyond our control,” Whitford said. “We have no way of controlling how the federal government operates.”
Many tribal programs are subsidized by federal agencies and others are paid for with tribal money that's held by the Department of Interior and is now unavailable.
Most tribal workers already have been cut back to four-day workweeks, while office hours have been slashed and nonessential staff sent home.
The tribe's General Assistance Program that provides aid for the poor on the reservation stopped doing so Tuesday, and while the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program is accepting applications, there are no more funds available to distribute.
The Chippewa Cree's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is no longer taking applications.
Things get worse after Thursday, when tribal leaders plan to shutter nearly all government offices and services, including the tribe's social services offices, Colliflower said.
The exceptions will be the reservation's police department and health clinic, which will both be fully staffed, he said.
Senior citizens and the extremely poor will still receive meal deliveries, propane and firewood past Thursday, as the weather turns colder, Colliflower said.