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Financial Planning

V. From Indian Country

White Earth Nation

The White Earth Nation is a federally recognized tribe located in northwestern Minnesota. The tribe’s reservation is the largest in the State, encompassing all of one county and portions of two others. The White Earth Nation’s transportation and public works director is Burny Tibbetts, who oversees the tribe’s transportation planning activities, the tribe’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), and individual project budgets. Mr. Tibbetts also oversees the tribe’s transit system, White Earth Transit.

This section describes how the White Earth Nation goes from project identification to the creation of a TIP, and the tools the tribe uses to help with that process.

Identifying Projects and Funding

The seal of White Earth Nation is a multi-colored circle with an image of an eagle flying over a lake and pine trees in the middle. Wording across the top of the circle reads "Gaa-waabaabiganikaag," and across the bottom, "White Earth Nation."

The first step for financial planning at the White Earth Nation is project identification. Mr. Tibbetts and his staff identify projects through the transportation planning process. Many of the identified projects are either roadway issues or serve new developments. The tribe is currently finishing its first long-range transportation plan, which will help to identify longer-term needs for the reservation. After projects are identified, the Tribal Council prioritizes the list of projects and passes a resolution showing the tribe’s Priority List.

The White Earth Nation also has a Tribal Transportation Advisory Committee that includes representatives from MnDOT, the county engineers for the three counties with tribal land in them, and the township road boards. The committee holds an annual meeting to discuss the needs and priorities for all these groups. By discussing their various plans for the upcoming year(s), the committee tries to integrate their respective projects into one another’s TIP and priority lists. According to Mr. Tibbetts, “the group is helpful for planning future projects that we might want to cooperate on.”

Mr. Tibbetts then estimates future IRR funding. As is the case for many tribes, IRR funds are the primary source of transportation funding for the White Earth Nation. When projects are funded from other sources, such as grants or through a partnership with another agency, the portion of the project paid for by funds the tribe receives are added to the TIP.

Estimating Costs

Once projects have been prioritized, Mr. Tibbetts estimates project costs. The cost estimate can often be based on how much similar projects have cost.

All estimates include a standard percentage for planning, engineering, surveying, other preparatory work, and construction monitoring. For projects that are not comparable to past ones, there are tools available from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) to help with estimating construction engineering and design costs. However, a more general percentage can often be used instead. As an example, for a roadway reconstruction project, Mr. Tibbetts has found that design is usually 10-15% of total project costs, while construction monitoring can be up to 20% of total project costs. Planning and administration costs are matched to what is needed to cover salaries for the appropriate staff.

Matching Funding to Projects

Looking at the tribe’s priorities, the cost for each of those projects, and available funding, Mr. Tibbetts matches projects to funding so that as many priorities as possible can be built over the next four years. When prioritizing projects, the Tribal Council focuses on the tribe’s transportation needs, with less attention to the likely cost of a project. Mr. Tibbetts’ challenge is to find a way to meet the greatest needs over the next four years given the amount of funding the tribe expects to have. The resulting list of projects then becomes the TIP. The TIP identifies how much funding each project gets and what work will be done each year. The TIP is then sent to the Tribal Council for approval.

During the matching process, the information on project costs is entered into a tribal project control schedule. The tribal control schedule is “an accounting and project management tool that contains detailed project and tasks information for all projects identified in the tribal TIP.” The White Earth Nation has a four-year control schedule. After the TIP is approved, Mr. Tibbetts is able to use the TIP and control schedule information to send an annual budget for transportation projects to the budget office.

Identifying Funding Through Other Agencies

A photo of a curving roadway with ice and snow in the grass on either side of the road.

The White Earth Nation has identified funding streams in conjunction with MnDOT to share costs on three projects. In one project, MnDOT was completely reconstructing a road between two reservation communities. The tribe paid the costs for the project to include a bike land and lighting. Another project was the renovation of a historic train depot to serve as a hub for tribal transit, regional bus service, and Amtrak, including a park-and-ride lot.

The tribe has also partnered with other agencies by working with the townships to take over the maintenance of roads serving tribal members. The tribe only takes responsibility for roads that are a priority for them, and since the townships often have insufficient budgets for road maintenance, they welcome the tribe taking responsibility for the road. On other roads that are not tribal priorities, White Earth Nation has also partnered with the townships to help with snowplowing and other important maintenance activities.

Financial Planning Tools and Techniques

At the heart of the White Earth Nation’s financial planning is a master spreadsheet workbook that combines the TIP, the project control schedule with details for each project, and summary budget information into one document that tracks projects from planning to completion. Each project is on a separate tab, with costs broken out by cost category.

Table 5. Example of Workbook Layout: An individual project

Project Blueberry Lake Extension
Cost Category Construction Engineering Construction Planning
Admin Total
Personnel $65,000     $8,500 $73,500
Purchased Services   $930,000 $5,000   $935,000
Supplies & Materials $5,000       $5,000
Capital Expenses       $4,250 $4,250
Other Expenses $15,000     $2,250 $17,250
Total $85,000 $930,000 $5,000 $15,000 $1,035,000

A summary tab at the start contains the control schedule for each year. The summary of costs for each project is shown by phase. The summary shows only the funding coming through the IRR program or transportation grants the tribe received. In the case of White Earth Transit, the tribe funds the program partly through IRR funding and partly through general tribal funds, which mostly come from the tribe’s casino.

Table 6. Example of Workbook Layout: Control schedule for one year

2010 White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians Project Control Schedule (TTIP)
Project Name Transfer Station Road Wild Rice Loop Blueberry Lake Extension Transit Bicycle Lanes Total
Route No. 34 78 133 -- 77  
Project Code 1 2 3 4 5  
Construction Engineering -- -- $85,000 $350,000 -- $435,000
Construction -- -- $930,000 -- -- $930,000
Planning Engineering $5,000 $75,000 $5,000 -- $65,000 $150,000
Administration $5,000 $5,000 $15,000 -- $5,000 $30,000
TOTAL $10,000 $80,000 $1,035,000 $350,000 $70,000 $1,545,000

The workbook also has a table that summarizes each year’s information and is formatted to match the budget system structure. Condensing the information into a simple table makes it easy for the accountants to put it into the budget.

As projects move forward, Mr. Tibbetts tracks actual expenditures against his estimates and projections. Over time, the spreadsheet comes to contain both projected funding information as well as data on projects that have been completed. The information on past projects can help to forecast future project costs if similar work is done in later years.

The spreadsheet tool is also helpful for financial reviews. Because the transportation program is one of the largest programs on the reservation, it automatically gets audited every year, and the spreadsheet serves as a very useful tool in that process. Thanks to simplified tables and spreadsheets, and his regular tracking of projects, Mr. Tibbetts is very wellprepared for the auditing process.

Mr. Tibbetts has shared this technique with quite a few reservations, including Leech Lake, Bois Forte, and Turtle Mountain bands of Chippewa/Ojibwe, and the Cheyenne. The Shoshone Arapaho have also spoken to him about coming to share his expertise in the near future.

Updated: 5/8/2015
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