Tribal Council approves $10 million for new tech, organizational overhaul
Scanty wireless networks, outdated computer equipment, slow servers — technological woes have been a centerpiece of discussion at Cherokee Tribal Council meetings for quite some time. After months of introducing resolutions only to table them and hours-long meetings with finance, technology and broadband leaders, Council this month took action on a slate of legislation designed to give some direction to the technology overhaul and designate funds with which to do it.
All council members agreed that a technology overhaul is necessary. In fact, the vote to hire a chief technology officer took place with little discussion and passed unanimously. But a subsequent resolution to set up a committee to guide technology spending and designate a pot of money for them to draw from sparked vigorous debate, eventually passing by only the narrowest of margins.
The proposal came from the finance department, which sought to set up the steering committee and earmark $10 million from the tribe’s endowment fund for technology spending. To take any money out of the fund, the committee would have to approve the expenditure and then have it OK’d by tribal council. Still, some councilmembers felt even those hurdles weren’t enough to justify the blanket designation of $10 million without a specific plan in place for its use.
“What I was looking for was some very specific things,” Chairwoman Terri Henry of Painttown said as the discussion opened. “I mean, you’re asking for $10 million with no specifically identified projects that you would be funding.”
But, Principal Chief Michell Hicks told council, $10 million is but a drop in the bucket when it comes to the need for technological upgrades in Cherokee. For instance, Cherokee Broadband is currently working on a $2 million grant to get Internet access out to only two of Cherokee’s many communities — Big Y and Big Witch — with little access, and the Information Technology Department estimates it needs $2 million in equipment for government functions. To accomplish the goal of bringing government offices into the 21st century and extending Internet access to all tribal members, $10 million is nothing.
“Ten million dollars will not begin to address the technology needs that this tribe will need to support the current level of operation, much less where we’re going as a tribe,” agreed Director of Finance and Management Cory Blankenship.
And, Hicks reminded council, they’ll still have the final word on any actual spending.
“The Tribal Council is still in full control of every expenditure that goes out of the fund,” Hicks said.
Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, wasn’t buying it.
“I’d rather have something specific,” she said. “I want it earmarked. I want to know how it’s going to be reported. But for me to sit here and say, ‘Here guys, here’s $10 million,’ I’m not doing that for anyone.”
“Representative McCoy, I would share your same concern about pulling money out of a fund with no plan on how to spend it,” Blankenship responded. “That is not what we are doing.”
The funds would stay invested in endowment until Tribal Council approved any technology project proposed by the steering committee, Blankenship said. The resolution would merely provide an organizational tool to determine where any money used toward technology upgrades should come from.
“In fact, if you took the next year to study these projects, you would earn 6 to 8 percent,” he said.
Not all the councilmembers were upset about the $10 million set-aside.
“The $10 million, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Council member David Wolf, of Yellowhill. “It’s going to be in the endowment and it’s going to be still invested. They’d have to come in here to get any of that money.”
Councilmembers Adam Wachaha, of Snowbird, and Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, echoed Wolf’s position.
A designated pot of money for IT upgrades is sorely needed, IT Network Administrator Lloyd Arneach told council. As it is now, the IT department has to compete for project money in a funding pool that includes public health and safety departments. Shortfalls in their operations have much more immediate impacts on tribal members than do those in the IT department, Arneach said, so thus far IT has not been able to compete. The department has been failing to even tread water in the technological improvements and maintenance it needs to keep tribal operations up to date.
“We can’t compete against these people because we don’t directly affect the community,” Arneach said. “We directly affect the services and programs that affect the community at large.”
“For years now I feel like you guys have been so pushed down,” Henry said.
The money is needed, IT representatives agreed, but IT Network Administrator Michelle Lopez cautioned council members about blindly approving a $10 million budget.
“Prior military experience, having worked in the government for 20 years, anytime you present funding you have to have a plan,” she said. “I for one agree I also wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a $10 million check without having specific projects and funding amounts lined out.”
A split vote
The IT department is in sorry shape, all agreed. But why, some councilmembers asked, the rush to create a steering committee and designate a sum of money before a CTO is even hired?
“Why don’t we wait until that person is on board and give that person time to evaluate?” asked McCoy. “You’ve still got $100 million in the endowment. What’s the big rush now?”
“Give that CTO time to sit down with the head of IT, the head of broadband, and then come up with a dollar amount, come up with a plan to bring to Tribal Council,” echoed Vice Chair Bill Taylor, of Wolftown. “That’s what I’d like to see happen.”
The discussion ended with moves coming in all over the place — Taylor moved to table the resolution, Wolf moved to pass it and McCoy moved to kill it. Tabling was not an option, Henry said, because the legislation had already been tabled three times, the maximum allowed in Tribal Council.
The vote was split 6-6, with Wolf, Taylor, Ensley, Perry Shell, Tommeye Saunooke and Tunni Crowe voting in favor of designating the $10 million pot and Henry, McCoy, Wachacha, Bo Crowe, Albert Rose and Brandon Jones voting opposed. But, because councilmembers’ votes are weighted based on the number of enrolled members in their districts, the legislation wound up passing 51-49. Hicks has signed the resolution and it’s awaiting a signature from Darlene Whitetree, superintendent of the Cherokee branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Deciding the decision-makers
That vote was just the first phase of ironing out exactly how the technology upgrade process would work. A separate resolution attacked the question of what the steering committee, eventually dubbed the Information Technology Strategic Working Group, should look like.
The original proposal called for a 14-member group, a number that Wolf objected to as “probably too big for a committee.”
The proposal also didn’t require committee members to have any specific knowledge about business or technology. That was a feature that worried Arneach.
“You’ve got a board — the IT Steering Committee — with one subject matter expert,” he said. “They can get outvoted.”
Wolf proposed whittling down the 14-member board by taking Tribal Council’s appointments from six to one and removing seats for Balsam West, Cherokee Broadband — which would be represented by the CTO — and Cherokee Cablevision. He also proposed adding a seat for the Cherokee Boys Club.
Council ended up approving a nine-member committee made up of the CTO as chairperson, two appointments from the chief’s office and one each from Tribal Council, Tribal IT, Cherokee Central Schools, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, Cherokee Boys Club and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
The committee must make monthly reports to council and be available to give reports to the community, councilmembers decided, and it would have to publish in the tribe’s annual report.
That decision passed unanimously, but the discussion didn’t finish amicably for all, with anger about the approval of the $10 million fund still simmering — among both council and the audience.
“How many days do I have to throw a protest on this?” asked a tribal member who identified herself as Brenda, when the 51-49 vote concluded.
Cherokee Broadband goes under tribal authority
Broadband is now a public utility in Cherokee, following Tribal Council’s vote earlier this month to bring the tribe-owned business Cherokee Broadband under the auspices of tribal government.
“The intent of this was to try to save the tribe some dollars,” Chief Michell Hicks told council.
Right now, Cherokee Broadband is being run by the consulting company Trificient Technologies, which has the daunting task of helping the tribe build a profitable broadband network in sparsely populated mountain communities where it’s not exactly easy to build infrastructure.
That’s probably not going to happen, council decided at its January meeting. Broadband infrastructure is expensive, and tribal land simply doesn’t have the population necessary to make it worthwhile to build, at least from a business perspective.
“If you build wires or relays, what’s the cost of that and based on that cost, what are you going to capture regarding customers?” said Finance Director Kim Peone. “You need 800 customers to break even, and we fall short of that by about 500 customers.”
According to an eight-page report and transition plan presented to council, Cherokee Broadband currently has only 327 customers, 473 less than it needs to break even, and in fiscal year 2014 it operated at a loss of $411,000.
Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, had questioned whether reorganizing Cherokee Broadband as a utility would prevent the organization from meeting its full potential for growth. He’d like to see Cherokee’s broadband network compete with regional players like Frontier.
“I’ve read the plan and everything and I like it, but I just feel like it’s going to be stuck in one spot and never get as big as it really could be,” Wachacha said.
Maybe someday, Peone said, but for now the key consideration is return on investment. Cherokee Broadband’s been in the red for its entire existence, and this is an effort to resurrect it as an economically viable tribal service.
“By bringing it in, it’s eliminating some costs that are not necessary,” Peone said.
In the first year of operation, the transition to a tribal utility would save about $250,000, the report says. Savings would come from increased opportunity for grant funding, a reduced administrative burden from the Office of Budget and Finance taking on accounting functions and greater access to low-cost capital.
The resolution passed with Council member Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, as the sole dissenting vote.