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Red Lake tribe awaits word on major federal funding requests
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Red Lake Public Safety Director Pat Mills stands in the doorway of a cell that until about a year ago was used to house prisoners. The jail, the law enforcement center and an ajoining court building have been condemned since 1979. Now, tribal officials are hoping the federal government will come through with funding to replace the outdated structure. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Leaders of the Red Lake Indian Reservation are waiting for word from the federal government on the status of some major funding requests. In the wake of the school shootings at Red Lake, the tribe was asked to compile a list of short and long term needs. The list included costs associated with the shootings, as well as long needed infrastructure repairs. When tribal officials delivered that list to Washington D.C. two months ago, they were hopeful money would be on the way. Now, some lawmakers say that's looking less likely. Leaders at Red Lake are worried they've fallen off the funding radar screen.

Red Lake, Minn. — The Red Lake tribe has gotten all sorts of help since the March 21 school shootings. They've received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from individuals, churches and foundations. Much of that has been directed to programs for kids this summer.

The federal government has helped, too. Initially, the government provided police officers to help with security. It's given Red Lake ambulances, provided mental health counselors and money for youth programs.

The short-term assistance has helped Red Lake residents cope. But the tribe is still faced with some major long-term problems.

One of the biggest priorities for Red Lake is a new law enforcement center. There's an incessant hum in the tribe's current police headquarters. The building's antiquated heating and cooling systems are noisy and unreliable.

"Probably everything in here is obsolete, so if it breaks down it takes awhile to get it fixed," said Public Safety Director Pat Mills.

Mills says the whole building was condemned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs back in 1979. But more than 25 police officers still work there. It also houses the tribal court system.

Standing before an empty jail cell, Pat Mills says he's glad, at least, that the outdated building is no longer used to house prisoners. They were moved just last year to a new detention center.

The tragedy has happened. We received assistance for awhile while it was going on. And now everybody is gone. And the bottom line, it falls back on the burden of the tribe to pick up and carry on.
- Pat Mills

"We've got two metal bunks there that are fastened to the wall," said Mills. "We just mainly use this for storage now. The plumbing is terrible on it. Before we moved, the plumbing would back up. When the pipes break, they have to tear everything up. A lot of the funding that was promised, or I guess suggested that we may get hasn't come about from the BIA yet."

The Red Lake tribe has struggled for years to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs to replace the law enforcement center. Treaty agreements between the tribe and the U.S. government make it the BIA's responsibility. The BIA is also responsible for fixing Red Lake's crumbling water and sewer system, as well as an aging wastewater treatment plant.

The school shootings at Red Lake put the tribe in the national spotlight. In the weeks following the shootings, heads of a number of federal agencies visited Red Lake and pledged to help improve conditions there. The tribe put together a list of all the things that needed work.

Tribal self-governance coordinator Lisa Spears helped compile that list. Spears says it's been a frustrating process.

"They've asked us for all sorts of data and all sorts of information, and then it's been nothing," said Spears. "So we haven't received a dime from all that work. And we get excited, thinking that we're going to get help, and it just doesn't come."

Red Lake relies heavily on the federal government. It provides the bulk of funding for tribal programs -- everything from public safety and law enforcement to health care and housing. Spears says for decades funding from the BIA hasn't been enough. It's forced the tribe to shift money from one program to another.

For example, she says, it costs more than $2 million a year to provide law enforcement services. But the BIA provides only about $1.5 million. The tribe has to make up the difference by taking money from other social service programs, which end up short-changed. Spears says the federal government isn't living up to its treaty obligations.

"I think the big struggle here is to make the BIA accountable," she said. "You know, it's like your playing a game, who can actually make them do that, you know."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not return phone calls for this story. In the past, BIA officials have said they don't have the resources to give Red Lake and other American Indian tribes what they need. The BIA's budget has been cut the past four years, and more cuts are expected.

Minnesota's U.S. lawmakers have been fighting to get Red Lake more money. Seventh District Congressman Collin Peterson tried to get funding for a new law enforcement center, a wastewater treatment facility and hospital improvements. None of those projects were included in the recently passed House appropriations bill. Peterson says he's disappointed.

"Unfortunately, it's not very far at this point," said Peterson. "It's to some extent the victim of bad timing because this budget deficit has really put the kibosh on trying to get anything extraordinary done."

Peterson organized a meeting last May in Washington that included Red Lake tribal leaders, representatives from the White House, the BIA and the heads of a number of federal agencies. Peterson says it was clear then that federal funding for Red Lake was inadequate.

"I really thought that this was maybe, finally, the chance to catch up on some of this stuff," said Peterson. "It seemed like that was the energy in the room that day, and all of the administration people seemed committed. You know, we had the White House involved. But there just hasn't been any follow through. In my opinion, the only way we were going to be successful is if the administration really stepped up to the plate on this. And so far it hasn't happened."

Red Lake's wish list includes some costs directly related to the school shootings. Tribal officials say they need $9.6 million for physical and mental health services. They've asked for more than $5 million for schools, some of which would be used to upgrade school security.

Lisa Spears says some things on the list are one-time costs. But she says the bottom line is that the BIA's basic funding level needs to be increased.

"After those needs are met, we still have these programs to run every day," Spears said. "And we still need to look at meeting the needs of a population that's grown immensely over the last 10 years, almost doubled."

That population growth has put a strain on programs like law enforcement. Public Safety Director Pat Mills says Red Lake is a high crime area. After the school shootings, his department had to provide security officers at the hospital, at each of the schools and a few other locations. Mills says that took officers off the streets and left gaps in public safety.

Mills says unless the federal government provides additional funding, his officers will be forced to respond only to serious crimes. It will mean officers won't have time to focus on outreach programs like community policing. Mills says there's not much he can do about it.

"The tragedy has happened," said Mills. "We received assistance for awhile while it was going on. And now everybody is gone. And the bottom line, it falls back on the burden of the tribe to pick up and carry on. And we're all going to have to cut corners to make this thing work."

Mills says it's very likely his department will continue to provide armed officers in Red Lake schools when classes resume this fall. Red Lake school administrators are still working on a security plan. It's unclear who will pay for the extra security.

Red Lake tribal leaders haven't given up hope in their quest for funding. They've been in regular contact with White House staff who are coordinating the funding efforts. Lawmakers say there's still a chance some funding could be included in a final budget bill. That's not expected to be completed until this fall.