By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The shutdown of Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos in the spring due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has put the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in a budgetary strain. The FY21 EBCI Budget, submitted by Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, addresses the revenue shortfall by budgeting at 50 percent of gaming revenue instead of the usual which is around 80 percent or higher.
Due to this, Tribal Council has approved legislation to delay the FY21 Budget Hearings until after the first quarter. Res. No. 192 (2020), submitted by Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha and Tribal Council Vice Chairman David Wolfe, passed 45-31 (24 absent) during the Budget Council session on Tuesday, July 7.
“…it will be more effective for the Tribal Council to review incremental increases to the budget over the course of the fiscal year through a budget hearing process as performance targets are reached rather than conducting hearings from the outset.”
Voting on Res. No. 192 went as follows: For – Chairman Wachacha, Vice Chairman Wolfe, Wolftown Rep. Chelsea Saunooke, Yellowhill Rep. Tom Wahnetah, Cherokee County – Snowbird Rep. Bucky Brown, and Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell; Against – Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke, Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed, Wolftown Rep. Bo Crowe, and Big Cove Rep. Richard French; Absent – Birdtown Reps. Albert Rose and Boyd Owle.
At the start of discussion on the legislation, Vice Chairman Wolfe said, “This resolution is not to do away with the budget hearings, but to delay them.”
He added, “…two of the major things that we looked at when trying to establish a budget for the Tribe is taking care of our employees and maintaining the services…this is just to delay the Budget Hearings for one quarter, and if the projected numbers from the casino go up, then we can start looking at allocating that into the appropriate programs based on the needs of the programs.”
Chairman Wachacha noted, “I like the approach on the sliding scale to allow the first quarter to come in from gaming revenue so it can kind of give us a better gauge on what we can fill back…its basically going to be a sliding scale budget so depending on what the numbers are from the gaming revenue, or levy or whatever, then we can start adding that back into the budget…”
EBCI Secretary of Treasury Cory Blankenship spoke on the budget process as it is normally handled stating that they usually begin in February. “We were closed for the duration of that cycle and because of where the revenues are with the casino being closed and them having to re-forecast, our directive was to take 50 percent of current year (projections) in order to meet that mandate of having a budget to Council by the first of July. Essentially what that does, holding at 50 percent, is it reduces our projected revenue to the tribal government, from all sources, by about $121 million.”
Rep. Chelsea Saunooke, who voted for the measure, said she has concerns regarding the “unmet needs list” and noted, “We have some essential programs that are zeroed out for overtime and other pay. If they have to go out on an emergency, how are we going to cover that? We really can’t stop those types of services.”
Blankenship addressed her concern stating, “We know that those eventually have to be funded. What that delay gives us is time to see where the casino projection actually lands.”
Rep. Shell, who supported the resolution, said, “We have never, ever been this unsure about what our revenues are going to be. I think this is a smart way to do it to keep those things that are essential in place, and as we watch how this changes over a period of time, we come back and adjust as we need to.”
Rep. French opposed the legislation stating, “They (tribal members) need to hear what’s in these budgets. They need to see it right here on camera what each one of these positions are.”
Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley, who served more than two decades as a Tribal Council representative for the Yellowhill Community, said he sees the importance of the Budget Hearings but also sees the need to wait during this particular cycle. “As a Council member, I enjoyed these budget hearings more so than anybody. That’s a time, as a Council member, that you can review and get a good understanding of every program from the very bottom-line employee to the manager or director.”
He added, “We’ve never seen the times that we’re in right now. We could bring them all in here and we all know that every program has needs and wants, and most of the time Tribal Council will approve the wants whether they need them or not. I like having budget hearings, but I think we need to have a good understanding of exactly where we’re at.”
Chief Sneed praised the Council representatives who called for transparency in the budget process and commented, “We don’t know right now what our cash flow is going to look like coming from the casino. Right now, it looks good, but we don’t know if that is going to be sustained. We don’t know if we’re going to have to shut down again.”
He went on to state, “At this 50 percent threshold that we’re using, we’re going to maintain that from October through December, and that will get us through quarter one and then we’ll have a good picture to know what the revenue picture is going to look like. Right now, we don’t know.”
Following passage of this legislation, Council heard Res. No. 193 (2020), submitted by Chief Sneed and Vice Chief Ensley, which would approve the FY 2021 Budget. That resolution was tabled unanimously by all present.