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Splitting San Juan could cripple Navajos economically

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Splitting the vast San Juan County into separate entities would economically cripple the Navajo segment in the south, according to a study released by the University of Utah Wednesday."The southern portion would be less well off than (they are currently in) the present San Juan County," said Ted Hebert, director of the U. Center for Public Policy and Administration.

A new, largely Navajo-populated county in the south would lose money from property taxes, state-road road funding and hotel taxes but would gain political control of the local government.

About 18 months ago, the San Juan County Commission spent $63,000 to study the ramifications of dividing the county. The study based its economic projections on numbers provided by the county. It makes no recommendations on division of the county.

To some, like Bill Todachennie, a San Juan Board of Education member, political control is nothing without an economic leg to stand on.

"I think it is a mistake to be splitting the county now," said Todachennie, a tribal member who lives on the reservation and served on the committee formed to study this issue.

"In a general sense, the Navajos would like to be independent, but then they would have to take care of themselves," he said.

He said business, industry and jobs are scarce in the area that would be southern San Juan County. As a result, residents have learned they can't rely on their own Navajo Nation, based in Arizona, or Utah or the federal government to take care of them.

Todachennie doubts the Utah Navajos have the resources and know-how to run their own county without help. He said the local Navajo administration has a tough time transporting its children to school in the winter, so how can it run an entire county?

The Utah Navajo Indian Reservation is located in the south portion of the county. The northern segment of the county is populated by 5,200 Anglos and 1,500 American Indians, according to 1990 U.S. Census statistics. Nearly 5,500 American Indians live in the southern portion.

If San Juan was split along the reservation's border, the new south county would have $2.1 million - $434 per person - in operating capital in the year 2000, the study projected. The northern county would have almost four times that amount - $8.1 million.

Without a split, San Juan County would have $801 per person.

Researchers also studied another option - splitting the county just south of Blanding in an effort to balance the sides economically. Still, the southern county came out behind.

Phyllis Crowley, a committee member, doesn't think the report will have any far-reaching impact in San Juan County.

"It was strange, but I didn't really think the Indians felt like they were ready to have their own government," Crowley said.

Any attempt to divide the county would require a petition of 25 percent of residents and a majority vote on both sides of the line.

Ty Lewis, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, thinks the residents in the northern portion of the county would approve a measure to split the county, but he doubts the residents of the south would agree.

"If it's a disadvantage to the people in the south, then why would they approve it?" he asked.

The 16-member committee, made up of American Indians and Anglos, met five times in 1995 and 1996 to discuss this issue. Its last act will be to decide what to do with the report, Lewis said.

Mark Maryboy, a San Juan County commissioner and the driving force behind the commissioning of the study, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

There are some other factors complicating the issue:

- A new county would have to establish, finance and maintain a sheriff's office.

But law enforcement jurisdictional issues in counties with Indian reservations are complex. Tribal police would be required to deal with the crime on the reservation unless an agreement was made with the county sheriff's office, according to the report.

- San Juan County has approximately $20 million in reserve funds. It is unclear how that money would be divvied up.

According to Hebert, state law is vague on the issue but hints that the money would stay with the old county, whichever side that was deemed to be.

"That opens the whole thing to a litany of lawsuits," he said.