The Petersburg Indian Association is laying-off four of its employees, including its top administrator, in an effort to deal with a significant budget shortfall. That’s according to tribal officials who say PIA will continue providing services to its members and the broader community. Matt Lichtenstein reports:
For mobile-friendly, downloadable audio, click here.

PIA office building, KFSK File photo.

Petersburg Indian Association Tribal Administrator Bruce Jones recommended lay-offs for himself and three other employees along with reduced hours for some of the remaining staff. He said the Tribal Council approved the cuts at a meeting earlier this month.

“We started projecting budgets for next year and we are looking at a pretty significant shortfall. Probably the biggest reason is the debt that’s hanging over us, or was hanging over us from the restaurant. That wasn’t going to go away real soon. We’d also planned on the amount of money coming in for roads and we decided that we weren’t going to be spending as much money on road projects, that kind of thing cause that’s been curtailed a little bit. So, just looking at the projections I got to thinking that it’s time we started cutting back a little bit,” said Jones.

PIA is the town’s federally recognized tribal government representing about 400 members. It administers a variety of service for its members such as energy assistance and aid to families and children as well as community-wide programs like tobacco prevention. PIA owns an apartment building, collects recycling under contract with the Petersburg Borough, and helps maintain and improve local streets and walkways using federal grant money from the Indian Reservation Roads Program.

Jones, a former Peterburg City Manager, was first hired by the PIA in the summer of 2012. In February of this year, he closed down the tribally-owned restaurant because it was not making enough money to cover its monthly debt payment of more than eight thousand dollars. It’s since been up for sale. PIA had borrowed several hundred thousand dollars to purchase and renovate the building a couple of years before.

Jones is hopeful these latest cuts will help put the PIA on the path towards a more balanced budget. He said, “If they stick to a strait spending plan that was put in place, I think they’ll survive that restaurant dept.”

According to PIA office manager Ronelle Beardslee, The Tribal Council made a sound business decision in going with Jones’ recommendations. Beardslee covers human resources and finance for the tribe and emphasized that the staffing cuts did not affect positions that are funded with restricted grant money.

Beardslee said that’s, “….because they’re bound by conditions of the grants. So, positions held for the following grants: JOM which is the Johnson O’Mally school program that we do with our native children, IGAP which includes the recycling program, and the tobacco grant we have. That staff has not been cut or reduced at all.”

With no tribal administrator, it will fall to the remaining staff to pick up more day to day duties, according to Beardslee. She said more major issues will be addressed by the Tribal Council’s executive committee which includes Council President Tina Sakamoto, Vice President Mike Sheldon, and Secretary Melanie Frentz.

“Basically what we’re doing is we are going to continue business as normal as we can, as normal as you can and we’re dealing with it pretty positively,” said Beardslee.

Beardslee said the remaining staff members have been willing to take on more job responsibilities to continue its services as much as possible. She declined to go into detail on the amount of the budget gap because she said the Council is still in the process of drafting the budget. But she was optimistic about the future.

“You know I feel very bad about the reduction in force and having to impact four employees and also the reduction of hours of the other employees but really, I think, you know, we can go along as we are and maybe getting a few more grants or more rentals, we might even be able to even start hiring people again but right now we just have to be very careful so that…….Petersburg Indian Association can continue to provide services to our native community and to the [borough] of Petersburg,” said Beardslee.

PIA still has about 10 year-round staff according to Beardslee. Depending on the year, she says the PIA’s roads program has also employed as many as 25 seasonal workers who are normally laid off in late fall and return in the spring.