Since this administration took office a year ago, we have been faced with a host of tough and ongoing decisions. As you know, just like every other government in this country, budget and other financial matters loom at the very top of an unprecedented list of issues that demand our immediate attention. Every day the Seminole Tribe is growing, adding new Tribal members, and with that comes added per capita expenses. Not immediately – but soon – the impact of these expenses will be felt by all of us. You have noticed and felt, I am sure, the repercussions of many difficult decisions we have made. And the hard time decisions are not over by any means.
We must go through another round of hard decisions to ensure that we do not fall into a similar predicament as the Mashantucket Pequots. Most Tribal members know the Pequots as the first wealthy gaming Tribe and now, suddenly they are broke. Just like that, they are billions of dollars in debt. It could not have happened overnight. But it is safe to say it must not have been properly addressed until it was too late.
This administration is doing everything it can to ensure Tribal members retain their current lifestyle. But some adjustments will have to be made to prevent a complete collapse like the Pequots.
In addition to tough financial decisions, there are other factors beyond just numbers of dollars that will affect the budgetary process – factors the Seminole Tribe has not often faced, such as future enrollment and blood quantums. Looking at our current situation, one school of thought identifies two major issues that we must come to grips with soon: 1. What is the makeup of the Seminole Tribe of Florida? Should the Miccosukee be counted or not counted on our rolls? And 2. When does a Tribal member become eligible to receive a financial dividend? Do we leave it at birth, as it is now, or should the financial benefit not begin until the age of 18?
These decisions need the input of all Tribal members. We can’t ignore these issues because they make us uncomfortable. They need to be right out in the forefront of every Tribal member’s mind. We can no longer shy away from this issue. It comes up constantly. By all means, we need to have a plan. And we need it now.
Another issue that affects our Tribal financial picture is the quality and efficiency of our programs. We must continue to examine and re-examine all our funded programs – from Education to Recreation to the Youth Centers, everything – and evaluate the benefits these programs bring to the Seminole Tribe. This evaluation must look at the services the program provides and determine if there is a real need being addressed and that we didn’t create a program just to have another program.
If there is a real need, then we must makes sure we have the proper personnel and infrastructure in place to meet the current and future needs of Tribal members. And then we need to have a mechanism in place that provides an ongoing evaluation, not just an end-of-the-year review. Ongoing. It makes good business sense.
Like with anything, people will get complacent and comfortable in their jobs, used to the routine, and maybe there are some careless things happening. A lot of folks may think, “Well no one is complaining; we must be doing everything all right.” But that is not necessarily the case. I’ve had experience with this sort of evaluation during my days as General Manager of the Immokalee Casino.
There we had independent “secret shoppers” come in and evaluate the whole place: the valet, security, the wait staff, the cocktail servers, etc. They observed the state of the bathrooms, the operation of all the machines, including the ATMs. They came in four times a year, and no one knew when. Believe me, even though we managers like to think everything is going properly, we still appreciate independent, trained people who come in and tell you if your food quality is good, if the bathrooms are clean, if the valet was rude. We wanted to evaluate the staff in their everyday work environment, not when we are all on our best behavior because it is inspection day.
Casinos are always under a microscope. It highlights how we can improve, be more efficient and smarter with our money. And the purpose for this is not to eliminate; it’s designed to improve programs. Now you might find out a certain program is not needed. There may be another program that provides the same services. This is the sort of discussion we will need to have, ongoing, if we truly want to improve and provide efficient, proper services to our Tribal members. This has to be our M.O.
Right now everything is about dollars and cents. Everybody wants more. That is natural, but until we start using these methods to explore our system, it’s difficult to consider increasing dividends or services. This is a new position for the Seminole Tribe. Just about every year since the Tribe organized, we have moved upwards, increasing our financial status year after year. For this to continue, however, we have to reduce our spending and implement these controls and evaluations.
These are really tough topics this administration has to address. We don’t have a crystal ball to tell us what the previous administration was thinking. I do know that these issues were not addressed, and it fell into our hands. And we are not going to pass it off to the next administration. It needs to happen now, and we are facing these issues head on.
I know there will be negative feelings. It will be natural. But with good business sense and the right decisions, people will understand, and the negative feelings will go away. Wouldn’t it be easier to ignore? Sure, just leave it for the next guys. That may be what happened at Pequot. But if we don’t talk about it, three, five, 10 years from now we could be on the verge of becoming another Foxwoods.
And can you imagine the reaction from Tribal members? “You guys knew about this all along! Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you do something?” We have to protect the current AND future needs of the Tribe. This administration is here to address these issues.
I sometimes wonder if people are listening, if they are trying to understand what is happening with the Tribe. I do know, however, that everyone is interested and tuned in to what is happening with their pockets. Enrollment, dividends, programs – it is all directly affecting what goes in our pockets. I am confident the people will support measures that will ensure we do not become another Foxwoods casualty. If you don’t understand, ask questions. I am tickled pink when we are questioned. It shows me that you are listening.
Now, on the surface it may seem like, “Wow, the Seminole Tribe is having no problems. Look at the parking lots at the casinos – they are all full all the time, it seems.” But what the news media and others don’t realize is we try to remain self-sufficient, without government subsidies. Actually, we are having the same problems as the federal government, just on a different scale. We are trying to maintain our identity and our culture by providing for ourselves. We are not looking for a handout. Self-sufficiency is expensive.
To ensure that we maintain that level of self-sufficiency, we have to address many issues today. The process has to start somewhere. It will start with this administration. When you come into these positions of leadership, you have to be ready to tackle these issues. It is vital. Our decisions – or non-decisions – will impact what the Seminole Tribe is today and what it will be in the future.
Finally, we simply can’t be worried about what happens in the political world. We came into office because we want to have a positive effect on the Tribe. That’s a huge positive. But if we allow our problems to continue unaddressed, it becomes a huge negative.
God bless the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Tony Sanchez Jr. is President of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.