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Tuscarora center opens; $7 million facility draws criticism from some members of nation

The Tuscarora Nation of Indians on Friday unveiled a $7 million community center amid criticism from some members who believe the building was erected without public input.

Leaders called the 38,000-square-foot building an upgrade from current health facilities and said it would become a focal point of nation life. It was built with a portion of the more than $21 million the New York Power Authority agreed in 2007 to pay to the nation.

That money is at the center of the dispute between nation leaders and the outspoken members, who say most Tuscaroras are unaware of how the chief's council intends to spend the money.

"There's no accountability," said Ross Johnson Jr. "We have no idea how that's being spent."

Chief's council member Neil Patterson Sr. called the allegations "lies" and said numerous public meetings were held to decide how to spend the relicensing money, which could appreciate in value to $47 million by 2057.

He said the building is the first step in the nation's attempts to use the money to benefit the membership, something he says hasn't always happened in the past.

"The nation has never had anything like this," Patterson said. "It's an absolute showcase and a real feat of engineering."

The center, filled with a mix of contemporary architecture and native symbols, will provide a doctor and dentist for nation members. It includes a common area for community events, a senior citizen recreation area, and an environmental laboratory. The space will boast a first-ever nation office with government documents, as well as library shelves, computer terminals and historical archives.

"That's what the building is for -- the health, education and welfare of our people," said clan mother Francene Patterson.

"I think it's beautiful," Tuscarora member Lisa Fitzgerald said Friday. "[What struck me was] how big it is."

Johnson, who has formed a people's council of concerned members, said he doubted the building actually cost $7 million to build. He also said it was unfortunate that nation members weren't selected to construct the building.

Neil Patterson, who was paid $35 per hour to serve as a part-time construction consultant, said hiring nation members to do certain work would have driven up the cost of the project. He said Tuscarora-filled labor unions could not forge an agreement with a contractor.

The project was not opened for bidding, Patterson acknowledged, and six contractors were invited to bid on the project. Calamar construction of Wheatfield submitted the lowest bid.

"We just didn't want to sit there and look at all sorts of bids," Patterson said. "Because we didn't know all the contractors out there. We didn't want to get a fly-by-night contractor."

Overall, Patterson said, the Tuscarora government is open and transparent. It consists of seven clans, and each one is traditionally represented by a clan mother and two chiefs. The chiefs compose a chief's council, the nation's governing body.

But only three chiefs -- Stuart Patterson, Ken Patterson and Leo Henry -- remain. The Six Nations Confederacy, which oversees the nation, has not named more chiefs when others have died, leaders said.

Johnson says that has resulted in a fragmented system in which clan mothers rarely call meetings and much of the membership remains purposely uninformed.

Many of the chief's council meetings take place at Leo Henry's house, Patterson acknowledged, and though some meetings are private, members are not turned away from the meetings.

Johnson questions how a member would know when or where chief's council meetings take place. He favors the type of elective system adopted by the Seneca Nation of Indians and other nations.

The clan mothers and chiefs disagree.

"It's the system that's been working for thousands of years, and that's the way it's always been," Francene Patterson said. "If you have a problem, you go to a clan meeting or [contact] your clan mother."

Neil Patterson said the community center would store nation records such as an accounting of the Power Authority funds, which would be accessible to the public. But he said he didn't "know why they would want to see them."

How the nation spends the remaining Power Authority money figures to be a hot topic.

Neil Patterson said the nation is unsure how it will spend all the money, though $105,000 has already been paid into a Tuscarora scholarship fund to pay for college tuition of members. The nation received two $5 million lump sums soon after the agreement, and the remining $10 million is being administered yearly.

The nation did not request all the money at once because it wants to spend it incrementally, Patterson said.

In addition to the money, the nation receives 1 megawatt of cheap electricity from the Power Authority. Most of the cheap power is used on the roughly 120 residences of nation members, and the rest is sold on the open market, leaders said.

Leaders commissioned a financial advisory committee to recommend how to spend the money. The committee recommended contacting a financial adviser to develop an investment strategy, contacting a grant writer and sanctioning a financial oversight committee to make recommendations.

Committee co-chairman Ed Farnham said the committee's recommendations were ignored and attempts to discuss its five-page report with the chief's council went unheeded. Patterson said the committee submitted its report late and the nation received advice from a financial adviser at HSBC Bank.

The Power Authority has paid the nation nearly $12.5 million to date, officials said.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com