Cherokee banks brace for rush when casino checks go out
Twice a year, Dorothy Posey arrives for her job at Mountain Credit Union in Cherokee knowing one thing: the lines will be long.
Not the sort of long by normal bank standards, like the 10-person-deep line that might form during the peak of Friday afternoon payday traffic. But so long that the line from the teller’s counter will snake out the credit union’s front door and continue to pile up outside.
“When we pull up (to work), they will be in line at the drive-thru already,” said Posey, general manager at Mountain Credit Union. “It will be very crowded and very busy all day.”
It’s the closest thing to a modern day bank-run. The only exception is that the banks in Cherokee are prepared for it.
The busy banking days are always associated with the distribution of per capita checks. Enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians get twice-annual payments from casino profits.
This December, each enrolled member living on the Cherokee Indian Reservation received a check worth $3,326 after taxes.
When talking to seasoned bank managers in Cherokee, they are perplexed why the busy bank day phenomenon would be even interesting enough to make news. To them, it is something that happens every year, twice a year. No big deal.
“To us, that’s what we do,” said Carla Jamison, general manger of First Citizens Bank on Tsali Boulevard in Cherokee. “We are used to it.”
Although per capita day is a regular part of life in Cherokee, like Christmas or Fourth of July, it is unique to the Eastern Band and other tribes that distribute a portion of its casino earnings among its people.
The first couple of years of working so called per cap days — the name given to days when enrolled members flood into banks with their checks — were a bit nerve-racking. But, now, Posey is blasé about the whole thing.
“We don’t come in early or anything,” Posey said. “Everybody knows what’s going to happen so we are here, and we’re ready, smiling.”
When a new teller starts at First Citizens Bank, Jamison gives him or her a rundown of what the day will be like — the lines will be long with no end in sight. But, she also offers them advice: stay calm, count your money and smile.
Jamison said she reminds tellers that no matter what day it is, they can only handle one customer at a time and should simply focus on taking care of each individual as they approach the teller window, not worry about the line of people waiting.
Plus, in general people don’t mind spending extra time at the bank to cash or deposit their check. It’s a sort of social hour, in fact, where community members enjoy catching up with each other.
“Everybody’s happy. They are conversing with each other,” Jamison said. “They wait their turn, and it’s fine.”
Posey described the atmosphere at Mountain Credit Union on per cap day as a big party.
“They are receiving money, and they are in a good mood,” Posey said. “People do realize now that they are going to stand in line.”
This year, however, lines at the bank Monday were not nearly as long as usual because First Citizens Bank in Cherokee decided to open its doors Saturday, when checks technically come in the mail. Usually people must wait until banks are open on Monday to cash or deposit them, but First Citizens gave people an immediate option.
But, people who decided to wait were still steadily flowing in and out of Mountain Credit Union Monday. The credit union was not open Saturday so its customers had to either wait or use another bank.
Calling in reinforcements
In recent years, the tribe has offered enrolled members the option of directly depositing the money into their accounts rather than being mailed a check. This has cut down on the number of people who make a trip to the bank on per cap day.
Still, the banks, which typically have three or four tellers on duty, must call in the reinforcements on per cap day. Not only are more tellers added, but other employees must also be on hand to help with other bank business, such as setting up an account.
The only real preparation that banks must do is ensure that they have enough money. Banks in Cherokee must load their vaults with more bills than usual leading up to per cap day because of the high volume of business that will transpire. The banks do not want to run out of money.
Banks schedule the money deliver as close to per cap day as possible, however, to make sure it is not lingering in its vault for too long for fear that someone might try to rob the bank.
Despite the volume of cash flowing out on per cap day itself, a heist is not the main concern. No savvy robber would target a bank when dozens of people are crowding the lobby and lines are stretching into the parking lot.
“The real worry is the day before,” Posey said. “If you can make it with your cash until per cap day, you are good.”
In the days leading up to per cap day, the Cherokee police are more vigilant and keep a particular eye on banks on the reservation, Posey said.
Mountain Credit Union does not hire special security for per cap day because a Cherokee police officer is usually stationed at the bank. They aren’t necessarily there for security, but instead serve outstanding warrants to people they haven’t been able to track down.
United Community Bank, which sits just outside the reservation boundary in Jackson County, hires off-duty Jackson County sheriff’s deputies to protect the bank.
“Far as I know, this is the first time this year,” said Major Shannon Queen with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. “I don’t know what they have done in the past.”
United Community Bank increased its security this year after being robbed previously, according to an email from the bank’s manager to Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe in May.
A United Community Bank company spokesperson contacted for this story refused to comment on any aspects of banking on or around per cap day, citing security concerns.
According various bank representatives and law enforcement, per cap days are incident-free for the most part. The only nuisance for police is traffic.
In the past, Posey said she has received calls from police telling her that cars waiting to pull up to Mountain Credit Union’s drive-thru window were stopping traffic on nearby U.S. 441.
Bi-annual casino windfall
This December, each enrolled member in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians received a check worth $3,912 before taxes. That amount is up about $200 from the last per capita check in June, which was up over the amount from last year.
The tribe’s profits have fluctuated between $210 million and $225 million in recent years. Half of casino profits go to support tribal programs — from education to health care to quality-of-life amenities — while the other half is split among the tribe’s 14,000 enrolled members in the form of the per capita checks. The only exception is children, whose money is kept in a trust fund until they come of age.
The amount of each check has steady increased as the casino earns more and also pays off the debt from its recently completed $633 million expansion. The checks can be used as an economic indicator, showing how well the casino is fairing.
Per capita distribution has been increasing steadily since 2009, following two years of recession driven decline in casino revenues. If revenues remain on the steady upward trend seen over the past three years, the checks could hit their pre-recession high in another year.
What would you do with an extra $3,900 or so this December?
For many enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the cut of casino profits that they receive twice a year — which amounted to $3,912 per member this December — will go toward bills and maybe some Christmas gifts.
“Birthdays, Christmas and bills,” said Crystal Hicks, a 33-year-old woman from Painttown, listing off how she plans to spend her check from the tribe. “That’s what mine goes to every year.” She has to buy for two birthdays in December, along with Christmas, so the per capita checks couldn’t be better timing.
Hicks was part of a steady stream of foottraffic coming in and out of Mountain Credit Union in Cherokee Monday to cash or deposit their checks.
Steven Welch of Birdtown also said his money will go toward bills. When asked whether he will set aside a little bit of the cash, surely, to buy himself something special, Welch simply said, “Well, maybe, if there is some leftover.”
The checks aren’t a huge windfall, and it seems many tribal members use them to make ends meet or cover recurring household expenses.
Paul Ensley Jr. said half his money goes for child support and the other half will cover bills.
For those under 18, their per capita checks are placed in a trust fund until they come of age. Once young enrolled members graduate high school or turn 21, whichever comes first, they receive all the accrued money in a lump sum. The school system in Cherokee has incorporated personal financial management as part of student curriculum.
“The kids are the ones who get the big money,” said Ensley.