Cherokee tribal elections are little more than a week away, and with the economy topping the list of major issues, the salaries of tribal officials are raising eyebrows and some ire on the reservation.
Both candidates for principal chief have stumped relentlessly on debt-reduction and spending-control platforms.
Whoever wins, however, will enjoy a sizable paycheck and a generous, lifelong pension, despite enrolled members seeing their per capita checks decline last year because casino profits were down.
Current Principal Chief Michell Hicks enjoys a base salary of $142,458, plus a car and an extra 30 percent of his base pay in fringe benefits, such as health care. That adds up to a total compensation package of about $185,000, not counting the car.
Vice Chief Larry Blythe is paid $129,896, plus given use of a car and 30 percent in fringe benefits, like the chief. Total, the vice chief earns nearly $169,000.
If challenger Patrick Lambert wins the top post, however, he’ll actually be leaving a much more lucrative position.
Lambert is executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission, which makes sure the tribe’s gambling operations, whether in the casino or tribal bingo, are on the up and up.
The TGC regulates gambling licenses, monitors casino payouts to ensure compliance with federal regulations and provides other oversight, such as background checks into managers and internal investigations.
Lambert’s base salary this year was $250,000, according to a gaming commission budget provided to The Smoky Mountain News. When you add in the fringe benefits, bonuses and vacation pay, the total comes to $446,355.
Lambert said that weighing his salary against the pay of public officials isn’t a fair comparison. Elected tribal leaders are public servants, while he is in the gaming industry, he said. It’s business versus government, and the two will never be equal, he argued.
“It’s no secret that I make a substantially larger amount than the chief does, and my salary is graded on a national comparison level with my years of experience and qualifications,” said Lambert.
Lambert believes his opponents are publicizing his pay as a tactic to divert public attention from what he considers the real issues of the campaign.
Lambert’s pay doesn’t come directly from the tribe like the principal and vice chief’s salaries.
The gaming commission gets its money from the businesses it’s regulating: it is funded by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, the management entity that oversees Harrah’s operations. To a lesser extent, the commission is also funded by the Tribal Bingo Enterprise and revenue generators such as background checks and license fees that it charges the gambling operations.
Indirectly, however, both salaries spring from the same fiscal headwaters: gaming revenues.
And both are significantly higher than the average in Cherokee.
In Jackson and Swain counties, which the reservation straddles, the median household income is $36,761. Statewide, it’s $43,754.
Principal Chief Hicks makes more than North Carolina’s governor. Lambert’s base pay surpasses that of the vice president of the United States.
Lambert’s compensation is based on the results of a tribal pay scale study done every few years by an outside firm, which looks at comparable jobs around the country and what people in those posts are paid.
The principal chief’s salary is decided by tribal council. Tribal council also vote on their own salaries ($70,000 a year each), and that of the vice chief.
It’s difficult to gauge whether Hicks’ or Lambert’s incomes match comparable positions elsewhere. Salaries in the private gaming sector aren’t public information, and a good many tribal governments don’t offer that information up, either.
A few tribes do have pay stats out there, mostly as a result of a public row over whether the pay is too high.
The principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma currently makes $122,444, but a committee suggested this spring that the number be raised to $170,697 over the next four years. The Sisseton–Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota pay their top guy $80,000, decreased from $100,000 just this year.
For Lambert’s position, it’s even harder to determine. He maintains that a fair comparison would pit him against people such as Darold Londo, general manager at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Londo’s salary isn’t public, and neither are those of many other top gaming officials, making the suggested comparisons impossible.
Recruiting firm Bristol Associates does an annual survey of gaming executives, and it reports that top spots in gaming can bring from $100,000 to $400,000 on average.
Lambert defended his pay, and said that if he won the chief’s seat, he wouldn’t keep his current job or the salary that comes with it.
“I’m a licensed attorney, I’ve got over 18 years of experience in this field, and we’ve been very successful. And the pay classification study proves that out,” said Lambert. “To me, if a man’s willing to take a cut in pay to do public service, to me I think that’s a good sign.”
Tribal council members also will have to defend their pay to voters. Their $70,000 annual payout far surpasses the $13,951 made yearly by North Carolina state legislators. In fact, only three states pay their lawmakers as much. However, it’s far below the $174,000 paid to members of the U.S. Congress.
Tribal council isn’t allowed to raise the pay of a sitting council; they can only decide what the next council should make. Usually, those raises are given in the October lame-duck council session.
Council Chairman Jim Owle wouldn’t speak directly to whether he thought the council members’ salaries were fair.
“The pay is what it is, it’s set by tribal council. It’s something that’s voted on in council, and if they think that’s what’s right, that’s what’s voted on,” said Owle, noting that any tribal member could bring a resolution to change it if they were unhappy with the pay.
Pensions for life
Salaries aren’t the only benefits afforded to tribal officials. Starting at age 50, all former chiefs, vice chiefs and tribal council members are afforded a pension that can be up to half of their in-office salary, depending on how long they served.
Tribal council in a split vote in 2009 made the decision to increase pension benefits, a controversial move in the midst of a recession.
Should Hicks lose the election and leave office, when he hits 50 in three years he’ll start getting a pension that’s worth half of his salary — or $71,229 a year for the rest of his life.
The chief’s spouses is also entitled to a lifelong pension if the chief dies, equal to a quarter of the chief’s last salary for two-term chiefs and an eighth for one-term chiefs.
The vice chief’s retirement plan follows the same rules as principal chief.
Tribal council members don’t get quite as much. When they hit 50, they’ll get between 12 and 75 percent of their salary depending on how many years they served.
Winners of principal and vice chief, the 12 tribal council seats and some school board positions will be decided during the Sept. 1 election.