Dear Tribal Family,
You’ve got mail. This week we sent out the Tribal Council’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget for your review. We will hold a budget information session from 2- 5 p.m. on Feb. 15 at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Community & Government Center. Then, at our General Membership meeting on March 8, an up-or-down vote will be held.
With 2014 in the rear view mirror, we are now passing through a critical intersection on the road to economic self-sufficiency and the budget is a big part of that.
It’s also important to note that because we don’t impose taxes on individual tribal citizens, our tribal government does not run on taxpayer dollars, as other governments rely on to provide services to its citizens. Instead, we have access to a limited amount of grant funding, federal aid, and investor contributions.
Of course, a budget is not simply an accounting statement filled with numbers. A budget, first and foremost, is a statement of priorities. It’s a document that lays out how limited resources get divvied up in the face of diverse needs in way that gives us the biggest bang for our buck.
It’s not just about the dollars. It’s also about common sense. So let me say right off the bat: the proposed budget is balanced and does not project to spend more than we bring in.
I believe our proposed $16.6 million budget (which includes secured funds as well as $4 million in anticipated in additional revenues) serves as a bridge to a more prosperous future. In preparation for the upcoming vote, I’d like to give you an overview of what’s in it – the good and the challenging.
First, the challenging: As with any budget – whether you’re talking about a government or a private business – salaries are always the biggest line item. And that’s because governments (or businesses) are still run by people who need to make a living, and who provide the services we all rely upon.
Of the $16.6 million in this year’s proposed budget, $4.7 million is to pay the salaries of the 79 people who keep our government running, 92 percent of whom are tribe members. There will always be those who question the salaries of employees. Yet, before a judgment can be made about what’s an appropriate salary, one overarching principle must be taken into account: competitive wages that attract highly capable professionals with particular skill-sets.
This budget does not propose to extend 401K, retirement or pension benefits to tribal employees, which is the norm in the labor market outside of our growing nation. The truth is: the salaries of tribal employees and the $1.5 million in additional health insurance benefits are in line with similar jobs outside of the tribe.
But that’s not all: this year’s budget proposes to eliminate cost-of-living-adjustments for the upcoming year. By doing that, we can save $200,000 and put that money toward our Tribal Native Scholars program, which lost the grant that previously funded that program. That’s not something we take lightly. But, in the face of limited resources, I believe it’s a difficult choice justified by the priority we place on investing in those pursuing a degree in higher education.
Now, a few words about the good in this budget.
I think we can all agree that our Community & Government Center is not only the seat of our government but the heart of our community – a place where we can come together as a people to be about our business. No doubt, there are costs associated with maintaining this magnificent building. That’s why this year’s budget proposes $1.5 million to pay for building costs, which not only includes maintenance and utilities but also the $500,000 interest on the loan we got to finance the construction.
We are also proposing to spend $856,000 in program supplies, which covers materials needed for tribal initiatives such as equipment for our shellfish farm and the $313,000 it cost to put in place paved infrastructure at the future site of our Tribal Housing Development on Meetinghouse Road.
In terms of more direct spending serving tribal members, we are proposing $800,000 to cover client expenses, the biggest portion of which ($270,000) will directly benefit tribal members in need of housing assistance. Another $250,000 would fund education scholarships and $227,000 would fund our hardship emergency services, which helps financially struggling tribe members pay utility bills or keep their families afloat amid unexpected financial catastrophe.
One of the things I’m most proud of in this budget proposal are the efficiencies and savings we’ve found that will allow us to spend $250,000 to place tribe members battling addiction into transitional sober homes.
Now, if we pull the lens back, the proposed budget for the upcoming year represents an increase of $1.8 million over last year’s budget of $14.8 million. What accounts for this increase is the federal requirement for us to establish a tribal gaming commission as well as the true costs of paying the bills at the Community & Government Center, which last year was based on an estimate.
We are proposing to spend $1.5 million on our Tribal Gaming Commission in anticipation of getting land into trust this year, which will trigger federally mandated hiring and licensing fees associated with building our First Light casino project in Taunton. This is money set-aside that will only be used when we break ground. Yes, it’s an added expense but a necessary one that reflects we are moving closer to our top priority: establishing sovereign tribal lands on which we can build a money-making engine that will ultimately drive us to economic self-sufficiency.
I am well-aware of the concerns over our gaming authority budget, the funds of which are separate from the money that funds our tribal government. I am also aware there has been misinformation circulated about the finances needed to bring this project to fruition. At this point, it should be self-evident what it costs to build a $500 million resort destination casino, which is what the state Gaming Commission requires our competitors to spend. If we are going to compete with the big players, we must invest on the same level, otherwise it would be like trying to compete with Super Stop & Shop by building a tiny convenience store.
While the road to complete economic independence may be filled with potholes, traffic, and other temporary detours, this budget keeps us cruising forward on the freeway to our future. It literally puts our money where our mouths and hearts are – a future financed, not by outside investors or government grants, but one that is paved and paid for by the bounty of our own prosperity.
Qaqeemashq (Running Bear)