Tela Troge, a tribal attorney and director of health and...

Tela Troge, a tribal attorney and director of health and community services, in a Dec. 23 photo. Credit: Randee Daddona

The Shinnecock Indian Nation on Monday breathed a collective sigh of relief after PSEG Long Island said it would forestall shutting off the power to more than 120 late-paying tribal accounts, some of which are seeking access to arrears forgiveness programs.

Shinnecock Indian Nation members and tribal offices had accumulated arrears of around $169,000 on electric bills through March, PSEG said, as some tribal economic development projects remain stalled by state litigation and a tribal leader researches potential tax overpayments to the utility.

Tela Troge, a tribal attorney and director of health and community services, said the nation last week faced shutdown of electric service not only to customers who rely on electricity for lifesaving health equipment but also to government offices and functions, such as a warming shelter and food pantry.

“We made a minimum payment so we didn’t get shut off,” said Troge. The tribe is fighting costly state litigation over its Sunrise Highway monument/billboards, she said, while working to get other projects, such as a gas station, hotel/convention center, cannabis initiatives and a reservation casino, underway.

But some help could be on the way to help the tribe generate enough power on its own to offset or eliminate electric costs. In coming weeks, SUNation Solar Systems of Ronkonkoma  is donated 2,000 solar panels decommissioned from a local job site to the tribe to generate its own power, said Scott Maskin, chief executive officer of SUNation.

The company is talking to the Long Island Power Authority and the state to devise a plan to deploy the panels, which can generate 800,000 kilowatt hours a year, on tribal land.

Meanwhile, Troge said she is researching how much tribal members and government have made in past tax payments to the utility to see if the nation could be due a refund. Tribal members are exempt from taxes on purchases, but utilities, retailers and others rarely recognize the exemption, she said.

“We’re being heavily taxed by PSEG,” Troge said. “I’m asking them to refund taxes incorrectly assessed.”

LIPA said only one Shinnecock member is paying sales tax on their bill, after filling out an exemption form incorrectly last year. Troge said members are paying tax other items, such as payments in lieu of taxes, that should also be excluded.

PSEG spokeswoman Katy Tatzel declined to comment on the tax matter, but said the utility was working with the tribe to see whether members may be eligible for a second-level arrears forgiveness program recently launched by LIPA. “We are going to hold off right now to see if the applications come through,” she said, noting that 58 tribal members previously received about $111,000 in arrears forgiveness.

In addition, LIPA in the fall provided a $30,000 grant to the Shinnecock nation to “encourage sign-ups for the New York State Energy Assistance Program (EAP).” Getting the assistance automatically qualifies customers for arrears forgiveness. “LIPA awaits reporting by the nation for how the funds were utilized under the terms of the grant,” a spokesman said.

The tribal government in the past has used COVID-19 and other grant programs to help members pay electric and food bills, but many of those grants have run out, Troge, said.

Troge said she was preparing more than 100 applications for the second-level arrears forgiveness program. But some accounts are commercial and may not be eligible.

LIPA said 105 residential customers on the reservation have $152,000 in past due bills, and 28 are on payment plans as low as $10 a month. About 57 have already received arrears forgiveness credits, while 48 didn’t have balances prior to May 1, 2022, and can’t qualify. Around half of the arrears, about $75,000, LIPA said, relates to the post-COVID period and would not be eligible. About 17 accounts classified as commercial have past due bills totaling $17,000, LIPA said.

Earlier this month, state Attorney General Letitia James toured the tribe’s 1.3-square-mile reservation, which has more than 200 homes and 800 residents. James’ office is handling litigation against the tribe by the Department of Transportation seeking removal of the tribe’s monument/billboards on Sunrise Highway, a major economic project. James' office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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