Southern Utes seek dialogue on fund salaries

Some tribal members see sticker shock

A meeting meant to rally support for increased scrutiny of compensation packages offered to Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund employees revealed a mix of attitudes toward the salaries of those working for the tribe’s business arm.

At the meeting of about 30 Southern Ute Indian Tribe members Monday night, most audience members who spoke pushed for starting a dialogue with tribal leaders regarding grievances about employee compensation instead of immediately organizing in protest of the issue.

Beth Santistevan, Tribal Council media coordinator, encouraged tribal members to invite Tribal Council, Tribal Chairman Jimmy Newton and Growth Fund executives to another meeting where they could ask questions directly.

“If you guys want to get things done, you have the power to do it,” she said.

Several Growth Fund employees attended the meeting as well, and two said they worked hard to earn the salaries and bonuses they received.

Criticism of Growth Fund employees’ pay is “an attack on those people, and it’s an attack on me,” said one tribal member who declined to give her name.

With an employee base of about 600, the Growth Fund oversees investments in many areas including real estate, private equity and energy development.

Growth Fund Director Bob Zahradnik also defended the compensation packages offered to employees, saying they are necessary to retain talented workers to operate the tribe’s ventures, the majority are in the energy sector. As domestic energy production ramped up during the last decade, people skilled in fields such as petroleum engineering have become more and more in-demand, requiring the Growth Fund to constantly re-evaluate salary levels to retain those employees, he said.

“We work with some very good people to make sure we’re paying salaries that are competitive in the industries we invest in,” Zahradnick said. The Growth Fund uses the services of the global consulting companies Mercer and Towers Watson to determine salary levels, he said.

In 2000, the Southern Ute Tribal Council gave the Growth Fund the authority to set salary levels of its employees, Zahradnick said. The Growth Fund updates Tribal Council members regularly with results of surveys that analyze employee compensation, he said. The Tribal Council also approved the performance-based formula used to calculate employee bonuses, he said.

Though Zahradnick declined to give any specifics about salary levels, a Durango woman who filed a lawsuit against the Growth Fund in 2010 said she earned a salary of $115,000 after working for several years as an applications manager there. She said she received annual bonuses of up to $25,000.

At the end of the Monday meeting, tribal members decided to schedule another meeting where they would create questions for tribal leadership. Most seemed to support the idea of talking with tribal leaders instead of signing a letter requesting that Tribal Council revise the contracts and bonuses of Growth Fund employees, the idea that was originally proposed by tribal member Lynda Grove-D’Wolf who organized the meeting.

ecowan@durangoherald.com