By Wil Phinney of the CUJ
MISSION – By a split vote Monday, April 6, the Board of Trustees declined a motion by Treasurer Sandy Sampson that would have provided $200 cash in a COVID-19 “relief package” to all members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Discussion of a “stimulus package,” later referred to as a “relief package,” consumed the most time during the open portion of the regular Monday Board meeting that took place via a “Zoom” televideo conference with BOT members joining from their homes.
None of the Board members opposed providing assistance to Tribal members in need. However, most wanted to wait for more information, including information about the kinds of stimulus funding that could be coming from the federal government in one of the financial-relief packages recently approved by Congress.
“None of the Board is against helping,” Sampson said after the meeting, “but most are a little more patient than Sandy.”
According to the motion language, the total cost to pay $200 to 3,151 enrolled CTUIR members would be $630,800.
That money would have come from the elimination of merit increases for employees whose evaluations were due between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021.
“Any saving resulting from the elimination of merit increases in the Tribal General Fund and Resort Distribution Funds will not be part of the 2021 carryover or rolled into the Contingency Fund and will be used as a stimulus package for Tribal members in the amount of $604,040.99 … and the balance $26,159.01 will come from contingency funding,” the motion stated.
According to Sampson’s calculations, the money would have gone to 796 tribal members 17 years old and younger for a total of $159,200; 1,696 tribal members between the ages of 18 and 54 for a total of $339,200; and 659 tribal members age 55 and older for a total of $131,800.
The BOT approved three other motions that, between them, moved $2,760,380 to the Tribes’ contingency fund. One motion removed $585,640 from long-term investments; a second motion removed $25,000 from litigation reserves and $100,000 from water-rights negotiations funding; and a third motion removed $1,564,000 from the land purchasing fund.
Although the Board did not mention it, more than $4.3 million from the contingency fund was spent late last month to purchase 4,600 acres of what is known as the Wheelhouse property on the North Fork McKay Creek area east of Pilot Rock.
There was a lot of discussion before Sampson’s motion was seconded and received a vote. In the end, Sampson was joined by General Council Chair Lindsey Watchman and BOT member Boots Pond. Voting against the motion were BOT Vice Chair Jeremy Wolf, Secretary Sally Kosey, and BOT members Jill-Marie Gavin and Corinne Sams. BOT Chair Kat Brigham only votes in the case of a tie and BOT member Armand Minthorn was out on funeral leave.
Gavin noted that earlier Board conversations had focused on “several stops along the way” before a decision was to be made, including consideration of the federal stimulus, the Tribes’ own credit program, and energy assistance. She said any CTUIR relief package was probably 30 days away.
“The need has not hit a climax yet,” Gavin said.
Sams, Wolf, Watchman, Kosey and Pond agreed.
“We should entertain this idea down the road,” Watchman said.
“It’s tricky right now, but we need a stimulus to Tribal members at some point,” Pond said.
Planning Director J.D. Tovey, tasked with developing a plan to work with the government on COVID-19 funding, said it is still unclear how federal dollars can be spent.
However, he said, “I think it is very premature to spend our own money” before knowing what the federal contribution will be.
That set Watchman off.
“Since we don’t know, why are we waiting? Some people are struggling right now. Are we waiting for Trump’s check? We should start here. We have money to take care of our people. We’re kicking the can down the road,” Watchman said.
Tovey said Tribal members who have said they need assistance are receiving help through the Tribes’ Department of Children and Family Services.
BOT Chair Brigham said everybody wants to give Tribal members assistance.
“There’s no disagreement there,” she said. “It’s about timing. I’ve talked to a number of people on and off the reservation and some are very unhappy. People have been laid off. We want to figure out how we can assist them in the best way.”
Sampson, recognizing that her motion wasn’t likely to pass, said at that time she was glad that the rest of the board was “thinking about it” but cautioned them people might be “knocking on your doors” if they run out of money.
Wolf said not everybody will need a relief check.
He suggested the money be used in specific ways and that criteria, such as payment for groceries or utility bills, be developed.
“If we send stimulus checks to everybody that’s not being smart with our money,” Wolf said. “For people who are calling whose needs are not being met, they could get money when they turn in bills or whatever. Right now, a lot is being taken care of. We need demographic data, otherwise if we send a stimulus check to everybody the money will not be utilized appropriately.”
Brigham agreed: “Not all of us need it.”
At that point Watchman “clarified” his position.
He said he was interested in “customer service communication” and was willing to “look at details.” He said that the discussion today should provide “mental relief” to Tribal members.
He said he liked “the idea of relief rather than stimulus” and added that “I certainly don’t want a stimulus check.”
After all that Pond noted that Sampson’s motion was still open on the floor.
Brigham assumed it had died for lack of a second.
But Watchman seconded it and the vote was made, 3 in favor, 4 against.
“I just wanted to put it on the table,” Sampson said after the meeting, noting that some people who are promised money in the federal stimulus package may not receive it until August or September if they didn’t file taxes last year or if they don’t have an automatic-deposit bank account.
Sampson said she saw the $200 cash from the Tribes as a stopgap for Tribal members waiting for the federal stimulus check. She was particularly concerned about the 197 Tribal members furloughed from Wildhorse Resort & Casino.
Even though her motion was voted down, Sampson thinks Tribal members’ stress levels should be lowered knowing Tribal leaders are thinking about them.
“There are so many unknowns,” she said. “We will need to support our people at some point. The proposal is still on the table; we want to see what’s still coming through the door… but we can’t wait forever. The people who are being furloughed are freaking out.”
The Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet again by teleconference on Wednesday, April 8.