Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gas Prices Pinching Tribal Programs

Gas Prices Pinching Tribal Programs


A man stands across the street from a Shell gas station in San Mateo, Calif.AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Gas Prices Pinching Tribal Programs

VERMILLION, S.D.—Tribal governments on remote and vast reservations are feeling the pain of higher fuel costs because of the transportation services they offer to members and departments.

Many tribes are reassessing driving practices, reallocating funding, or making cutbacks on transportation services for tribal members.

"We're starting to feel the first elements of the [budget] shortage," said Ken Ladeaux, chief executive assistant to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe president.

Higher gas prices are forcing the Rosebud Sioux tribe to reassess how it helps its members with transportation, said Ladeaux. The reservation is located in south central South Dakota on the Nebraska border and is 1,442 square miles.

The tribe is re-evaluating transportation for law enforcement, education, social services, the elderly and nutrition programs, among others, he said. They also offer rides to medical appointments for tribal members who have no other means of transportation. The tribe has more than 100 programs and many rely on transportation, he said.

The Rosebud Sioux tribe is reallocating funds among services to compensate for higher gas prices, Ladeaux said. They may even be forced to cut some program services.

"There's no good answer," said Ladeaux. "No matter what option you take, you're eliminating certain services."

The Crow tribe is also taking measures to make up for high fuel costs. Located in south central Montana and bordering Wyoming, the reservation is close to 3,500 square miles. The tribal government has already begun to limit the use of its tribal vehicles, said Ben Cloud, editor for the Apsaalooke Nation, a tribal newspaper.

"There's really no way around it," said Cloud. "It's getting difficult here in Montana."

With fuel costs at $4.02 and diesel 40 cents more, the tribal fish and game department, which patrols the reservation, is really feeling the pinch, he said. It has the largest fleet of 4-wheel-drives and emergency vehicles, he said.

"It's affecting their operation," said Cloud. "We have a huge reservation and trying to cover it is difficult."

As a response to growing gas prices, Cloud said, Crow tribal officials are "being more aware of how [they] use tribal funds and being more efficient" by limiting travel and prioritizing riders' needs.

The Navajo reservation, the largest in the U.S., spans 27,000 square miles over the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah corners.

The Navajo Nation has encouraged inter-departmental communication by e-mail, fax and phone to cut back on fuel costs, said Anslen Foster, acting director for central fleet management, the headquarters for the nation's six fuel stations. He also said that departments "should be planning better trips" around the reservation.

Fleet management spent $710,000 for fuel this April, compared to $450,000 the same month a year ago, said Foster. The nation has 2,100 tribal vehicles and fleet management has been absorbing most of the costs, he said.

The nation has an agreement with Arizona and New Mexico to be reimbursed the 18 cents per gallon tax paid to fuel suppliers, Foster said. But the reimbursement often takes about six weeks for the fleet management to be paid by the tribal tax office.

As the Navajo Nation's finance budget committee met this week, the impacts of higher fuel costs were certain to be part of its discussion, said Bronson Peshlakai, public information officer. That sort of talk is spreading as fast as fuel prices are rising.

Said Rosebud's Ladeaux, "Just because we have a rise in fuel costs doesn't mean we get any more money."

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