State of the tribe: January 2014

Jimmy R. Newton Jr., chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council.
Damon Toledo | The Southern Ute Drum

Hello and greetings. This is Chairman Jimmy R. Newton Jr. I am here to deliver my state of the tribe address to you, the membership.

I report on the state of the tribe because I believe it is important for tribal members to understand where we are so we can move forward together. The year 2013 was filled with many accomplishments for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe under the leadership of myself and the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council.

The state of the tribe is strong, and the future is full of promise for every tribal member.

The Tribal Council welcomed two members, both of whom have extensive experience in leadership roles, and we are excited to continue at the pace we have set. I would like to welcome back Mr. Melvin Baker, who served on the Tribal Council previously from 2001 to 2005. He brings a wealth of knowledge from the past and is eager to learn about new endeavors.

I would also like to welcome back our vice chairman, Mr. James M. Olguin. He is one of the most dedicated leaders I have had the pleasure of working with. His work experience within the organization makes him the best choice for your vice chairman.

During my second year as chairman, goals were achieved; past council members who wanted the best for the membership set those goals. When I decided to run for chairman, it was my vision that I would help carry those goals to fruition and lead us into tomorrow, as we have so many times been referred to as the “leaders in Indian Country.”

I would like to report on not only the Permanent Fund, but on the Growth Fund and the Sky Ute Casino Resort, as we are all one tribe and the prosperity that we experience takes the hard work of each employee in each entity. I would now like to talk about each of these areas in more detail.

Casino

Over the past year, the Casino Management Team has instituted a number of changes that resulted in positive financial results for the first fiscal quarter of FY 2014. We are pleased with the financial performance, as revenues have exceeded last year’s and expenses are well below last year.

Changes made in the Food & Beverage Department, primarily the conversion of the Aspen Room to two separate dining venues, have reduced Food & Beverage losses by over 40 percent. Food and beverage showed first-quarter growth of 8.07 percent, while the hotel has seen 3.28 percent growth in revenue when compared to the first quarter of FY 2013, and has sustained a 35-percent profit margin.

The casino’s total property revenue for the first quarter, compared to the prior year, showed a 3.18 percent growth, while our operating expenses were reduced by 2.9 percent, resulting in operating income being up more than 12 times over last year.

As part of the budget process, casino management ultimately eliminated a total of 26 positions and two programs, transportation and valet services. While somewhat inconvenient, the casino has not seen a reduction in the number of guests visiting the property.

In fact, guest count numbers have increased. In 2013, we sold 28,482 rooms and had a total of 49,963 guests. So far in this quarter, we have already sold 6,328 rooms. Our current casino employee count is just under 400, with 18 Southern Ute tribal members, seven of whom are supervisors, managers or directors, and 140 other Native Americans.

The casino offers internship programs for tribal members, as well as a comprehensive Career Development Program to ensure successful advancement within the organization.

On the casino floor, our marketing strategy has greatly contributed to improving financial numbers, utilizing a direct mail strategy specifically for gamers and rewarding them for their level of play. Concerts and shows are starting a bit earlier and ending earlier to allow guests to migrate to the gaming floor. An “Encore” promotion after each event has proven very successful in keeping guests on the property and encouraging them to participate in other offerings, including bowling, slots, table games, poker, and our varied dining options.

New player signups have also increased as a result of the various strategies. With the innovative web and web-based tools such as Facebook, the casino can market better and more cost effectively, reducing some of the need for expensive radio and print advertising.

The casino will continue to build on its successful strategies while utilizing sound expense control practices. Therefore, we believe the casino can sustain and increase the financial strength of the property through FY 2014.

Growth Fund

The success of the Growth Fund relies heavily on timing of projects. Timing is affected by various factors. Some of these factors are out of our control and some of them are planned deliberately.

The future of the Growth Fund is positive. The Growth Fund’s major focus in the past few years has been to find, develop and produce oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico and the panhandle of Texas. Larger projects, such as the projects in the gulf, are done with partners to keep our financial exposure limited.

Our production company, Red Willow, has been very successful in exploring the gulf and has now made nine discoveries there. Two of these wells came online during the past two years and are now producing significant volumes of oil and gas. Last year the total volumes were up, but like all wells these will decrease gradually until new wells come online in 2015.

The Growth Fund also made a large investment in the Panther Energy Company. This investment paid off in 2013 when a large asset in the Anadarko Basin held by Panther and Red Willow was sold for a significant profit. This profit not only increased the Growth Fund’s EBITDA – earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization – but also returned cash and decreased the Growth Fund’s debt.

That followed the Growth Fund’s continuing strategy of borrowing money for important projects and then using profits to repay debt. We will continue to follow that strategy in our future endeavors.

In addition to Red Willow’s recent success, Aka Energy Group is holding its own despite extremely low prices for ethane, butane, propane and the other natural gas liquids that it removes from its customers’ gas streams. Red Cedar Gathering continues to excel and to squeeze higher profits out of the shrinking produced gas volumes on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

Finally, Southern Ute Alternative Energy is maintaining a presence in the alternative energy field by investing in alternative energy funds that invest in companies that improve the profitability of energy-based companies.

Our non-energy companies have right-sized and modernized their operations so they better fit the current economic climate. As a result, GF Properties Group and the GF Private Equity Group were successful in FY 2013. Both companies exceeded their FY 2013 budgets and are exceeding their FY 2014 budgets as well. We support the plan to build on those successes in future years.

Our other operations – Quichas Hills Apartments, the Sky Ute Fairgrounds and the Southern Ute Utilities Division – are providing much-needed services to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Town of Ignacio, and the surrounding area.

Permanent Fund

This year, the Tribal Council and the Tribal Health Department went live with a revamped tribal member health benefit plan. On Oct. 1, 2013, which coincided with the rollout of President Obama’s health care initiative, all tribal members received newly reshaped health care coverage.

It’s the newest program rolled out by the tribe, and there are still many things to be worked out, but those glitches will likely be worked out here in the coming year. Along with the benefit program, we are committed to improving operations at the Southern Ute Health Center and incorporating services to serve all of our needs.

We have made big strides in improving the service of Southern Ute Police Department to the membership. A recent U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs audit of SUPD deemed the department as one of the best-operated law enforcement agencies in Indian Country.

The findings also indicated that the dispatch center was “top notch” and one of the best and most professional ever seen in Indian Country by the BIA reviewer. In fact, as a result of the audit, the BIA requested that SUPD dispatch trainers train BIA Ute Mountain Agency dispatchers.

In addition to the BIA audit, the Tribal Council has contracted with the Police Assessment Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen police oversight to advance effective, respectful and publicly accountable policing. It is a goal of the Tribal Council to increase community policing on the Southern Ute Reservation. It is important to us that the police department knows our members and their issues.

During the time of the federal government shutdown, we experienced the shutdown of the BIA as well. At that time, tribal hunting season was upon us and, after rain and snow, many of our known hunting roads were in severe disrepair.

Under the guidance of the Executive Office, we took it upon ourselves to improve those roads for the members who utilize the roads. The collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources – which provided mapping, GPS and the bulldozers – and Construction Services – which provided labor – made the project possible in an extremely expeditious manner.

The Permanent Fund’s workforce has changed since I have been chairman. My administration has made the employment of tribal members a priority. With the incorporation of the TEAM program and the restructuring of the job qualifications, tribal member employment has increased significantly.

When a job is vacated, the qualifications are reevaluated and, where appropriate, the job may be advertised as a “tribal member-only” position. In addition, a tribal member who wishes to become employed may apprentice for the position, be a trainee, or, if qualified, simply enter the position as a regular hire.

Currently, the Permanent Fund has 659 employees, 190 of whom are tribal members and 130 of whom are other natives.

We have also been moving forward with changes in technology. The Tribal Council has been paperless for two years, which has helped with efficiency and cut operating costs. We have also improved the Southern Ute website and incorporated the tribal member-only website.

We get requests every day from the membership to join the exclusive website. It has items specific to tribal members’ interests, including Tribal Council minutes and agendas, surveys, presentations, posters, and other information the organization deems important to the membership.

There is also a monthly electronic newsletter that goes out to the membership who is signed up for the website. I encourage any members interested in electronic communication to sign up for the website.

In keeping up with technology, the Permanent Fund has begun working on a Facebook page. Although some of us are not Facebook savvy, we see it as an alternative communication channel for the membership. It is our goal to create transparency and increase communication with the membership.

Conclusion

Let me leave you with these closing thoughts. I want the membership to take part in how we move forward in the best interest of the tribe now and into tomorrow, but always remember what past leaders and elders have done for the tribe.

There are a lot of needs of our membership, and through the council and administration we want to evaluate those needs and services, so we are not wasting money. No matter what department or building they’re housed in, you the membership know that everyone that works for the tribe is working together to benefit the membership and the reservation.

For this next year, we will work to complete the priorities of the tribe and understand and shape our government to be more efficient and practice our sovereignty to the max. That work extends to let Washington, D.C., know to give us the authorities to max our sovereignty out.

I ask for good health for our people and to respect one another as we work together for the future of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

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