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Cherokee looks to increase retirement vesting period

Councilmember Boyd Owl, of Birdtown, (right) gives his opinion on the proposed legislation. EBCI image Councilmember Boyd Owl, of Birdtown, (right) gives his opinion on the proposed legislation. EBCI image

Pension plan double-dipping is prompting the Cherokee Tribal Council to consider tripling the number of years required to draw from the tribe’s retirement plan from five to 15. 

Supporters of the resolution, introduced during an Aug. 2 meeting, said that passing it would save the tribe money, allow for a more engaged labor force and give young Cherokee people with a solid education but little experience a better chance at finding a job at home. 

“We’ve got young kids coming out of college that’s putting in for the same job that someone who might have 20 years’ experience — they might have retired from the state or retired off the reservation with more experience than one of our kids coming out of college. That’s going to give them the upper hand on the hiring part,” said Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, one of the sponsors of the resolution. “Then we have a bunch that were retired outside the tribe and will come in here and work for five years and be able to draw pension from the tribe.”

Vice Chairman David Wolfe, of Yellowhill; Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove; and Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, were also sponsors. 

While the resolution’s language would apply to hires throughout the tribal government, teachers at Cherokee Central Schools seemed to be the impetus for the resolution, which specifically encourages the Cherokee Central Schools School Board to adopt a similar policy. Finance Secretary Cory Blankenship later told councilmembers that directive wasn’t necessary, as the school system already uses the tribe’s plan. 

“What I’m hearing is we’re getting teachers coming in that’s been retired from the state coming in for the benefit of the pension plan, not for the good of our kids,” Human Resources Secretary Tara Reed told councilmembers. “They’re giving what they can, but we need to bring in people that’s going to be here for the teaching piece of it, not for the money piece of it.”

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“It’s short-term work for long-term benefits,” agreed Councilmember Boyd Owle, of Birdtown. “You’re coming here to work for five years, you’re not going to give it your all.”

The five-year rule is well known, said Crowe, adding that he’s had many casino employees tell him that people come in all the time talking about how they’ve only got so many months left before they hit the five-year mark and can leave with their pension. 

The sooner this resolution could take effect, Crowe said, the better. 

“I know that we can’t go back on the ones that have already used the retirement, but I think we can go back on the employees that are still working for the tribe,” Crowe said. 

Attorney Jay Gallinger stepped up to say that’s likely not possible, according to a provision in the tribe’s plan that’s been present since 2001. 

“You can’t lessen anybody’s benefit. You can’t go to someone now and say to the present people and change their benefit,” he said. “And by making them go 15 years, that is lessening their benefit, and I don’t think you can do that but we need to check that out.”

While none of the councilmembers voiced dissent for the intent of the resolution, several of them had issues with certain elements of the proposed language, prompting Wolfe to suggest that the body table the legislation. 

“Everybody’s points are well taken, and we need to get this right,” Wolfe said. “I think it would be wise first to table this.”

The move to table was approved by all those present save a no vote from Crowe.

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