By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
A program that would help subsidize the power bills for elder members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been re-submitted. The “Power to the People, Putting our Elders in the Comfort Zone” legislation was discussed and tabled by Tribal Council during its Budget Council session on Tuesday, Jan. 30.
A prior version of the resolution was passed by Tribal Council on July 6, 2017 and then vetoed by Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed on Aug. 1, 2017. In his veto letter, Chief Sneed estimated the program would cost the Tribe more than $57 million over a 10-year span.
The current legislation states, “There is not a more deserving group of tribal members that warrant assistance from our tribal government whenever possible; and many elders struggle to pay their monthly electricity bills and are faced with the difficult choice of paying certain bills, while leaving other bills to fall behind.”
If passed, the Power the People program would provide up to $125 per month (per verified Duke Energy account). The legislation states there are around 1,150 tribal members in the five-county service area (Swain, Jackson, Graham, Cherokee, and Haywood) that would qualify. “…it is projected the eligibility and participation rate would be 50-60 percent of the total eligible elder population with an electric account in the five-county area which provides a number of approximately 630 per month (630 x $125 – $78,750 x 12 months = $945,000 per year) so the cost to initiate the project is projected to be less than $1 million dollars annually.”
According to information included in Chief Sneed’s veto last spring, EBCI Tribal Enrollment reported that as of July 25, 2017, there were 2,137 tribal members who would qualify for the program.
The current legislation also states, “The guidelines and details of this program shall be developed and implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services (PHHS) and presented to Tribal Council within 90 days from ratification of this resolution.”
Also included in the legislation is a measure to pay for water and sewer service for EBCI tribal elders who are customers at Cherokee Water and Sewer.
The original Power to the People legislation was submitted by former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert. This latest version was submitted by former Chief Lambert, Painttown Rep. Lisa Taylor, and Walt French, and includes over 300 co-sponsors who signed a petition.
Prior to any debate on the issue on Tuesday, a letter was read into the record from former Principal Chief Jonathan “Ed” Taylor whose name appeared on the petition. “I want the community to know that I do not, nor have I ever, signed a petition in support of this resolution…I do not support the Power to the People proposal. I believe it will be an overwhelming and unnecessary financial burden to our people.”
Former Chief Lambert opened debate and commented, “Let’s not lose sight of what this is about. This is about helping our elders because I think that’s the most important part that we’re all here about.”
He said he’s aware of prior discussions regarding the possible placement of solar panels on elder’s housing to help defray costs, and he noted that his home has solar panels and his power bill last month was still over $300. “Solar panels are not a way to solve this problem for our elders. That can help, but so can this and this is immediate. This is something that we can do today to help our elders, and that’s why I’ve brought it back forward again.”
Former Chief Lambert added, “Why can’t we utilize the funds of this Tribe to actually do something good and positive for the people, especially our elders? Solar might be a good way to go, but I’m here to tell you it’s not the sole answer.”
Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke said she isn’t opposed to the idea but needs to see a more detailed plan and exact monetary figures and projections regarding the program. “I don’t think there’s a person sitting here that does not support the elders, but we are the keepers of the purse. We have to account for every penny that is spent.”
Savannah Wilnoty, an EBCI tribal member from the Wolftown Community, commented, “We are not against having the elder’s power bills paid, but you are not here to just look after the elders. We, our age group, needs help too. The elders, they are taken care of. Our elders of this Tribe are taken care of better than any other tribal nation in the United States.”
Sandi Owle, an EBCI tribal member from the Birdtown Community, said, “I qualify as an elder, and I’d like to start by saying that ya’ll don’t owe me a thing…I appreciate everything that the Tribe provides to my age group. I take advantage of the $1,000 a year to help with fuel assistance. I appreciate the Christmas Check ($500). As a former tribal employee of over 40 years, I appreciate the pension that I receive each month…I appreciate everything that the Tribe does.”
She offered up one suggestion on how to save money on the program, “I think you should look at how many months you’re going to subsidize someone’s light bill. We have two months that we receive per capita. You could take it down to 10 months. Right there is money saved.”
Big Cove Rep. Richard French said he supports the idea, but noted it needs some work. “I think we need to table this and come back with some numbers and guidelines. Don’t just down it because not every elder has to take advantage of this.”
Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle said there are elders in the community who are struggling, and he noted that families need to step up. “The families have got to start taking care of our elders. I don’t think there’s anyone in the audience who wouldn’t pay their parent’s light bill.”
Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha noted he will schedule a work session on the legislation sometime later in the month of February.