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Native Sun News: Montana tribe sees cut in heating assistance

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

The flag of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Photo from Facebook

Low Income Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) to be delayed at Northern Cheyenne
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– So far old man winter hasn’t made his annual appearance at Northern Cheyenne country; the 2014 fall season being unseasonable warm with temperatures often in the 70’s, in contrast to 2013 when snow arrived in September keeping its icy grip on the country until April.

That is very fortunate for more than 500 households on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who rely upon the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to keep warm during the winter season, because the distribution of those funds will most certainly be delayed by several weeks or longer.

Letha Whitewolf, Northern Cheyenne LIHEAP Director since 2008, explained that the program receives its funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, normally getting its allocation for winter heating sources (electricity, propane and wood) in November. However, the program always run short in the months of August—October.

For many years, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe helped by paying salaries of the LIHEAP Director and secretary from the general fund so they could keep working. LIHEAP then reimbursed the Tribe when the program received its funding. That enabled the small LIHEAP staff to accept, review and process applications during the fall, ready to allocate assistance quickly once federal funding arrived.

Not this year. Due to budget shortfalls, the Tribal Council did not include funds for the LIHEAP program staff in the FY 2015 budget.

“I was shocked,” Whitewolf said. “We always planned on this because it’s been a commitment the Tribe has honored for so many years.”

President Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher said he does not necessarily agree with many of the budget cuts contained in the tribe’s FY 2015 budget, but the Tribe is increasingly hard-pressed and had to make many difficult budget decisions, including LIHEAP and other programs formally assisted through the tribal general fund.

“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse and worse in future years,” he predicted.

The part-time LIHEAP secretary was laid off in April and Whitewolf on July 18, assigned to a temporary position with the Rosebud Lodge in Busby. Since, she has worked that job while attending to other critical LIHEAP functions, such as the submission of the annual proposal to continue funding.

“I had to do that on my own time, without pay” she said, “but I got it in and it has been approved.”

In the meantime, applications for LIHEAP and WAPA elderly funding are available from the HIP office, located next to the now vacant LIHEAP office. Whitewolf collects those applications in her spare time, ready for the day when she will return to directing the LIHEAP Program. As of press time, she was waiting for final word from her supervisor on when that would be.

“To be on the safe side, I’m telling people that we won’t accept applications until Nov. 3,” she said. “Even if we go back to work a little earlier, there is a lot of preparation and catch-up to do. I hope our clients understand.”

As she explained, it takes time to submit applications, review them, certify eligibility and then to process vouchers and payments through the tribal finance department.

“I’m very concerned about some of our most vulnerable clients,” Whitewolf indicated. “The elderly, disabled, those on SSI or Social Security. LIHEAP funds can only be used for current bills and if harsh weather comes in the near future, some of our clients could get into a bind.”

Whitewolf is also concerned about a $65,000 reduction in the LIHEAP award to the Tribe for FY 2015.

“In past years, the program has assisted over 500 households on the Reservation, still having to decline the applications of some who do not fall in the lowest income guidelines. We will have to really prioritize this year,” she noted “to make sure that the neediest receive assistance first.” She also said that many people on the reservation are employed earning minimum wage.

“They will be considered in the second round of funding,” she promised.

Whitewolf also works closely with the Tongue River Electric Cooperative (TRECO), Ashland to administer the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) electrical benefit for tribal elders. WAPA is a Federal Agency that markets and distributes hydroelectric power and other services within a 15 state region within the central and western U.S.

Under this program, TRECO receives reimbursement from Southern Electric/WAPA related to power produced at hydroelectric dams, such as Fort Peck on the Missouri River system. Through a cooperative agreement between WAPA, TRECO and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, these funds are set-aside and allocated to Northern Cheyenne tribal elders during the months of October — May when electric bills are highest.

“This was a decision made by in Allen Rowland’s time (1980’s) and I think it is an excellent way to help our elders. Many of them really need it.” Whitewolf commented.

Other Tribes in the western WAPA area also receive WAPA reimbursements, but handle them in different ways.

The monthly amount of the Northern Cheyenne WAPA assistance for elders varies, but for the next few months will be $100.00 per month, automatically applied to electric bills from both TRECO and Big Horn Electric which provide services on the Reservation.

Eligibility is simple: age 60 and over; enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe; resident on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and having electrical service. Whitewolf said that the WAPA allocation for October has already been distributed, but elders who are eligible can apply and receive the benefit beginning in November. Elders who became eligible during the time when the LIHEAP offices were closed, however, lost out on that benefit.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com)

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