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South Dakota Energy Assistance Payments Vary; Tribes Get Less

December 30, 2011 —  Ira Blue Coat expects the $1,661 in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds he got through the state of South Dakota this winter to keep his propane tank full and his Eagle Butte home warm until spring returns to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

Most of Blue Coat’s neighbors and relatives aren’t as lucky, however. Instead of qualifying for the state-run LIHEAP program, they receive help from the tribal LIHEAP and, as a result, get considerably smaller annual award amounts.

“I’m asking people up here what they get for LIHEAP and my cousins, my brothers, my aunts and uncles, they’re having a hard time paying for propane because of it,” Blue Coat said.

Last year, the Blue Coat household applied for energy assistance through the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, not the state of South Dakota, and received approximately $400 for the entire heating season.

LIHEAP helps income-eligible families pay for heating and insulating their homes in the winter and cooling them in the summer. So far in fiscal year 2011, which began Oct. 1, the federally funded program will make at least $2.7 billion available to states, tribes and territories. Last year, nearly $5 billion in energy assistance was disbursed on a per capita basis to states, including more than $29.3 million to South Dakota. Of that amount, $5.2 million was set aside for Native American tribes in the state, based on a federal formula that uses 1990 Census data to determine tribal set-aside amounts.

Tribes have the option of administering their own LIHEAP programs and in South Dakota seven of the nine tribes choose to do that. South Dakota has state-tribal agreements in place with those self-administering tribes to double the amount of tribal set-aside funds in the original formula, since the common assumption is that tribal residents were undercounted in the 1990 Census.

“These agreements allow us to take the 1990 Census data and double the percentage of LIEAP funding that would normally go to the tribes. For example, the Oglala Sioux Tribe normally would receive 2.3 percent of the LIEAP funding allotted to the state of South Dakota, based on the federal formula, but due to the state-tribal agreement that percentage doubles leaving the Oglala Sioux Tribe to receive 4.6 percent of the total funding,” said Emily Currey, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services.

Blue Coat and his wife, Jennifer, qualify to receive LIHEAP funds from the state, instead of the tribe, because she is not a tribal member. That distinction benefits their household financially, since per household allotments from tribal LIHEAP programs have historically been significantly lower than the state LIHEAP awards.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, LIHEAP official Robert Running Bear said earlier this month that qualifying households can expect to receive about $300 in LIHEAP funds from the OST program this winter, perhaps more depending on emergency needs and as contingency funds become available. The Lower Brule Tribe has made one $690 allotment per household in the first quarter of FY2011 and will award another when second-quarter LIHEAP funding becomes available after Jan. 1, according to Lee Brannan, who manages the tribe’s propane company and its LIHEAP program.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe LIHEAP office didn’t return a phone message Wednesday and Cheyenne River officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for information about its tribal LIHEAP allotments this year.

South Dakota’s LIHEAP awards vary by primary heating source and geographic region, Currey said, ranging from $427 per year for coal and wood to a top award of $2,333 for fuel oil for the largest, poorest households per year. Propane customers can receive as much as $2,082, natural gas customers can get $1,245, and customers who heat with electricity can receive up to $1,096.

“That’s unfair,” Blue Coat said of the tribal/state disparities.

To date in fiscal year 2011, South Dakota has received nearly $13.3 million. All U.S. tribes together have received a total of just over $30 million in LIHEAP funding.

Source: Rapid City Journal