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Long Winter, Reduced Funds Challenge Tribe's Heating Program

March 4, 2014, 7:17 PM by Kevin Woster

Long Winter, Reduced Funds Challenge Tribe's Heating Program

Spirits rose this week across the Pine Ridge Reservation, along with the temperature.

For truck driver Brian Rowland, better weather means easier propane deliveries on clear roads and clear skies. It also means less frustration among propane customers who saw prices soar throughout heating season.

The Lakota Plains propane service in Pine Ridge is a key provider to reservation customers, with another service center in Kyle. It works with tribal officials to hold propane prices down whenever possible.

"That was difficult duty this winter," Rowland said.  "We did our best.  But you know just like the market fluctuates up and down, we just give and take; the same way the market goes."

The propane price hike hit all customers. But it hit hardest among the poorest of the generally low-income reservation families who watched heat bills rise as temperatures fell.

The tribe offers a variety of assistance programs, including housing help for residences of tribal housing clusters, the Running Strong Program and its matching grants and other assistance and financial assistance for heating needs to the reservation districts from Prairie Wind Casino.

The central program for the poor is the energy assistance program directed by Susan Two Eagle in Pine Ridge, which operates on and provides assistance through federal dollars in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. The office and the funding were stretched this winter by difficult cold stretches and persistent winds.

When the tough weather hit, Two Eagle and her small staff scrambled to fill requests for heating assistance, worrying most about rural homes beyond housing clusters and sub-standard housing with poor insulation.

"It was pretty hectic, and it was kind of scary because of the cold and you know people dying on different reservations, and that," Two Eagle said. "It was kind of scary, I mean, and one night when I would go home thinking, 'I hope we got everyone that, you know, really needed it.'"

Federal budget cuts in recent years have reduced program staff and funding overall. Another complication is the funding formula that is based on outdated census data that means fewer dollars to the tribe.

"It's almost like a 20-year-old agreement that needs to be re-negotiated. And we have been working on that," she said.

State officials who operate on contract with the tribes in the LIHEAP program have also been working on getting the federal formula updated to reflect more recent census numbers. Meanwhile, they are allowed to inflate the population estimate in the direction of what more accurate population counts will be, which helps mitigate some of the financial losses.

The Oglala Tribe got just short of $1.2 million last year as its share of the overall tribal share of the LIHEAP money that came to South Dakota.  It will be slightly over $1.2 million this year. The amount has been declining since the tribe got almost $1.7 million in 2010-2011.

But it would be lower for all tribes without the state's agreement on the disbursement of dollars.

"The state agreement doubles the number of people used for the tribal allotments from the federal government," Kim Malsam-Rysdon, senior adviser to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said.

Malsam-Rysdon says Daugaard is working with the tribe on the federal funding formula and the need for an update. She hopes that could be coming soon.

"The governor is committed to that," Malsam-Rysdon said.

For the 2013-2014 heating season, the state of South Dakota received $17.5 million in LIHEAP funding. Seven of the nine tribes in South Dakota choose to administer their own LIHEAP programs and receive the funds directly. Those seven tribes this year received $3.3 million. And of that the Oglala Tribe, the largest in South Dakota, received about $1.2 million.

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