Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear is asking the Osage Nation Congress to approve an across-the-board raise for the nation’s non-elected employees to help with cost-of-living increases that are hitting people at the gas pump, in the grocery store, and many other places.
Should it be approved when Congress meets in April, the raises would go into effect during the first pay period in May, Standing Bear said.
Congressman Scott BigHorse will sponsor the bill asking for the raises.
Because of the intricacies of the Osage Code regarding inflation-related raises, Standing Bear on March 11 temporarily assigned the Nation’s controller, Tyler McIntosh, as the acting treasurer.
The code says that merited employees are eligible for “inflation adjustments” based on the consumer price index and other factors, and that they must “[b]e requested by the Office of the Treasury by May 1st of each year.”
The Nation has been without a treasurer since April 2021, and repeated advertisements to hire one have drawn no applicants, even when the top salary was increased from about $115,000 to $212,000.
Standing Bear said he elevated McIntosh temporarily just to ensure that Congress didn’t object technically to a request being made by the controller.
Standing Bear acknowledged that there is “no way” that McIntosh could be confirmed as treasurer because he lacks a key qualification. The job requires that he be a certified public accountant, and he is not one.
“He’ll only be acting treasurer until April 25” when the Congress’ Hun-Kah session adjourns, the chief said. “I could argue that Tyler as controller can make that request (for a cost of living increase) but I don’t want certain Congress members to get political with this.”
The reaction from the two candidates vying to unseat Standing Bear as chief was swift.
“It’s unfortunate the Chief has decided to wait until less than a month before his primary to realize that inflation has negatively impacted our people,” wrote Joe Tillman, a candidate for chief and current member of Congress.
“We’ve been worried about the effects of inflation for months now. He’s also had the opportunity to increase salaries on an annual basis through the budgetary process, but so far has failed to do that. Perhaps because the recommendation for a ‘inflation adjustment,’ allowed for in Osage law, must come from the Office of the Treasury which hasn’t had a Treasurer in going on a year now because of his leadership.”
That said, Tillman said he would support the bill. “I will also support another round of direct assistance to the Osage people,” he added. “We are all feeling the negative impacts of today’s economy, we are all struggling to put food on our families’ plates, not just our employees.”
Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt said she was going to wait to see “what exactly is proposed and look at the numbers” before she decides whether to support the raises.
Standing Bear shrugged off the jabs about the treasurer and timing of the raises as political posturing.
Two of the past three treasurers – Sam Alexander and Jim Littleton – were forced out by Congress, he said. The pool of CPAs who work in tribal government is very small, he said, and when the Congress crossed Alexander, it crossed a very big fish in that pool.
Potential recruits for the job, Standing Bear said, have a common response when approached to be the Osage Nation treasurer: “Nope. Sam has already told me what it’s like.”
“That’s the truth,” the Chief said. “That’s what happens when people are rude.”
The timing of the proposed raises hinges on world events and the economy, Standing Bear added: “I’ve been watching the reports on the economy like many of us have been, watching inflation rates go up. I’ve been especially concerned about Osages who drive a lot; I’ve heard complaints over the last couple of months about how expensive it is to fill gas tanks.”
The two-week-old war in Ukraine, he noted, has compounded the problem.
“There is consensus that with this war going on in Ukraine, it could drive oil up to over $150 a barrel and food costs could expand. If grain prices go up, that will increase the price of meat. Prior to this war, the inflation rate was 8 percent over a year earlier. And it’s going to get worse, go to who-knows-what?
“We’re entering a very difficult time. We could be talking about 20 percent inflation rates.
“I remember when Jimmy Carter was president and inflation rates were pushing 20 percent. It was a dangerous time.”
Standing Bear said he thought 10 percent was a reasonable increase given the current inflation rate, and that a further increase could be examined if needed when the tribe’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Cost of living raises can only be meted out once every fiscal year by Osage law.
The timing, he added, had nothing to do with the primary coming up on April 4.
“I did not start the war in Ukraine,” he said. “And I didn’t cause inflation to spike.
“The cost of gas is up. The cost of propane is up for those of us who live in the county. Food prices are up and they’re always higher in rural areas.
“It’s going to get worse. From everything I’m understanding and reading, this war is putting pressure on an already bad situation.”
The amount the raises will cost the Nation is still being hammered out by the Treasury; Standing Bear said that a rough, “very preliminary estimate” was that a COLA increase would cost the Nation about $1.5 million, including fringe benefits.
“People in Treasury are looking at federal funding versus tribal funding and the rules that govern them,” Standing Bear said. “They’ll be working on this for the next week or two.
“We have the funds to do it.”