Claremore, Oklahoma’s Utility Provider Creates Dilemma for Tribal Emergency Assistance Program

“We can’t help any Cherokee families with Claremore Utilities. Claremore doesn’t take our Cherokee Nation promissory notes anymore.” the Cherokee Nation Family Assistance worker told me.

I was really stunned. The City of Claremore Oklahoma has an utility service monopoly on electricity, water, sewage, and trash to homes within the city limits. Each month around 11,000 Claremore residents and businesses get a combined bill for the services. Occasionally some low-income, elderly, and disabled Cherokee families need assistance with meeting the high cost of utilities and meet the established qualifications to receive assistance. Many Native families need help, especially when utility costs sky rocket during the heat of summer and winter cold season. Unfortunately, the Cherokee Nation has been unable to help families who are on Claremore Utilities since September 1st. In fact one outraged Cherokee family showed me a bill where Claremore Utilities put a fine print notice at the bottom of all bills received in October which stated:

Important Notice:

Effective September 1, 2014: Vouchers will no longer be accepted in lieu of payment to keep utilities on; funds must be received before due or cut off dates in order to avoid penalties or disconnection of services. Any assistance will be applied as funds are received.

Jim Thomas, Claremore city manager for the past two years, set up a meeting with me November 25th to discuss my concerns over the new utility policy after the utility receptionist told me dozens of charities and Tribal nations had difficulty with the new policy.

“It is a great concern to me when accounting policies get enacted that disenfranchise a whole sector of customers who get their power from Claremore Utilities.” I said in the meeting. “When [families] go to get the help, they are unable to get the help because Claremore has enacted policies that no longer make it able for them to get assistance. That is a serious hardship on families already having a hard time.”

Susy Collins, the less than a year Finance Manager who was sitting in, said they had switched to new accounting software to make things more accurate for the Oklahoma State Auditor. She explained that if promise to pays were “just hanging” and not collected yet there would be problems with the state of Oklahoma auditor and investigator. However, Thomas had told me earlier that the Cherokee Nation would send in a payment every 30 days that honored the vouchers/promissory notes they made. The program had been in place for years. Another city official, Larry Hughs, compared the Cherokee Nation to a church in a scenario and asked me what happened if a promissory note/voucher didn’t get honored when a hypothetical church with an assistance program “went belly-up” after Thanksgiving. Hughs felt that energy in the future would be paid for before used, like gas and groceries, unlike the energy systems used currently.

During the rest of the meeting, the city officials suggested, more than once, that the Cherokee Nation set up “an umbrella account” with funds readily available for the city to draw funds from. According to them, some of the organizations and the Salvation Army had done that already. They refused to name other charities or Tribal nations where their programs were unable to set up the “umbrella accounts” or “send down a credit card”. Thomas said that bad policies had been in place, like using the Cherokee Nation assistance program, and that it was against state law to even take promissory notes/vouchers. No one in the meeting could name the specific statute. However, many other energy providers, like Oklahoma Natural Gas, accept promissory notes/vouchers from the Cherokee Nation so they can assist citizens keep the heat on.

Utility bills can run high during cetains times of year

Utility bills can run high during cetains times of year

City officials said it was a multitude of reasons, but no precise reason, for the policy change. They cited bad debt, new software, and state laws. The next day when I called Gary Jones, the Oklahoma State Auditor, ┬áto get more information on the statute that was preventing charity and Tribal nation energy assistance programs from functioning the receptionist informed me he had been called away to Claremore for a meeting and wouldn’t be back in the office until after Thanksgiving. Jones has not returned a request for a callback.

It’s a Catch-22

In order to get assistance with energy bills under the program operated by the Cherokee Nation, the Cherokee family or individual has to be in a crisis and facing a service disconnection. If services are disconnected then they are unable to apply for the assistance program because there is no open account to send funds to anymore. Before September, Cherokee nation citizens could apply to get energy assistance even if they were facing disconnection the following morning. If they met all the qualifications for the program, and depending on the funds available within the Cherokee nation, the Cherokee Nation Family Assistance Office would contact Claremore Utilities directly and promise to pay a certain amount of the utility bill for the family. The written agreement to send funds from the Cherokee Nation would prevent a service disconnection of homes on tribal lands. The Cherokee Nation, who follows the funding regulations set forth by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Family Assistance programs, would send in a lump sum one time a month to cover specific amounts across any accounts they had contacted Claremore Utilities about. The City of Claremore Utilities terminated that arrangement with the Cherokee Nation, other Tribal nations, and charities in favor of only immediate payment options like cash, credit cards, and checks.

This forces all Tribal nations, operating under BIA funding regulations, and charities to create a new alternate program for one city government in order to assist families in Claremore. In the meantime, no families in Claremore are being assisted this winter, or in the foreseeable future, by the Cherokee Nation and other entities due to Claremore Utilities termination of the previous long-standing arrangement.

About 15% of Claremore’s population is Native. Both Claremore and Rogers County are part of the Cherokee Nation’s 14 county jurisdiction. 58 miles to the Southeast of Claremore is the Cherokee Nation Capitol city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. But, families who qualify to get utility assistance from the Cherokee Nation Family Assistance Program do not have to drive to the Capitol in Tahlequah. The Cherokee Nation has established several administration and government offices across their jurisdiction to serve citizen’s needs.

In the Cherokee Family Assistance Office in Catoosa one Cherokee family who had came to seek burial assistance, a program to help bury close family members recently deceased, overheard me speaking to the receptionist. They tearfully told me that in desperation to get help they risked the gas expense and drove from one charitable group to another seeking assistance and even missed some time from work. They had lived in Claremore for 44 years and had never felt more belittled.

Another Cherokee man who had no need of assistance asked me sarcastically, “Are they trying to run the poor out of town?”

On December 2, 2014 I met with Buddy Robertson, a Cherokee Nation citizen and Claremore City Councilman to let him know about the broken energy program. He said that he would look into it and talk with Thomas. I have not received any further information as of yet.

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