CPA firm here serves growing list of tribes

CPA firm here serves growing list of tribes

Brandler, Emily

Ribail, Stauffer & Associates PLLC, of Liberty Lake, an accounting firm that provides services solely to American Indian tribal governments, says its business is growing as tribes look for opportunities to bolster their economies.

RS&A serves more than 40 tribes in 16 states in the Western U.S., including 12 in Washington state, says its CEO Art Ribail. The firm has a total of 22 employees, including 20 here and two at its Denver office, and its client base has more than tripled since it went into business five years ago, Ribail says. It’s located in a two-story, 4,800square-foot building at 2501 N. Fairway Road.

About half of the firm’s business entails audit work for tribal governments, Ribail says. Another large portion includes financial management training for tribal leaders. RS&A also provides economic feasibility analysis and budgeting consultation and helps tribes that have had accounting problems in the past get their records in order. He declines to disclose the firm’s revenues.

Ribail says the addition of the gaming industry to tribal economies has contributed to the firm’s growth.

“We saw a proliferation of gaming for awhile, and although that extensive growth is flattening out a little, I don’t anticipate a slowdown at all,” Ribail says. “It’s something that’s not going away, at least in the short run.”

Although “large, glittery casinos” on reservations receive public attention and are important to tribal economies, very few tribes become extremely wealthy as a result of operating them, Ribail asserts, adding that such ventures largely are dependent on local demographics. For instance, a tribe in a densely populated area such as Sacramento, is more likely to start a casino than a tribe in Montana, he says.

“You see a lot of press about gaming dollars, but less about where those dollars go,” he says. “Tribal governments have to support their constituents, just as state and federal governments do, and they contribute significantly to the economies of non-tribal communities.”

Non-tribal communities tend to view tribal governments warily because of gaming issues and property rights disputes, but tribes contribute funds to local school districts and have donated millions of dollars to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, Ribail says. He expects to see tribal governments becoming even stronger players on the nontribal political and economic stage in the future, because, he says, cooperation benefits the economies of both parties.

Natural resources

Tribal governments face typical budget concerns, such as finding funding for social services that include health care and law enforcement, he says. Yet, tribal governments typically don’t tax their constituents, so one of the ways they generate revenue is by using their natural resources. For instance, revenues from timber sales and land leases are vital sources of income to many tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Part of RS&A’s role as a financial adviser to tribal governments includes understanding different tribal economies.

“If they have a lot of timber resources, they have concerns about timber imports from Canada,” he says. “Whereas other tribes that don’t even have three trees on their reservation aren’t going to lose a lot of sleep on that issue.”

Land-use issues present constant concerns for many of the firm’s clients, he says. Tribal governments often are offered lucrative contracts by companies to run operations such as mines on tribal property. Those ventures can generate substantial revenue, but might come with extreme environmental and social costs to tribes, Ribail says. RS&A analyzes both sides of the cost equation to help tribal clients make their decisions.

“All we can do is be financial advisers, and say ‘Here are the dollar sides, see if it still makes sense for you,”‘ he says.

Another consideration when dealing with tribal governments concerns the wide variance in the population size of tribes, he says. For instance, some of the firm’s clients have thousands of members, whereas others only have a few people. Some tribes can own millions of acres of land, while others don’t own a single acre.

Basic needs for financial accountability remain the same regardless of size, but the firm’s employees have to learn how to tailor financial advice to each tribe based on its socioeconomic situation, he says. Additionally, each tribe has its own cultural history that must be taken into consideration when the firm provides financial advice.

Since the firm covers such a large geographical area, Ribail says its employees typically travel 30 to 40 weeks a year. The firm is considering hiring more employees, and plans to develop three surrounding lots at its Liberty Lake headquarters eventually. It might build more offices for its own use, but it’s too early to say how it would develop the property, Ribail says.

About six CPA firms nationwide focus primarily on services to tribal governments, Ribail says. He anticipates that number will rise as casinos continue to grow and more firms “follow the money” and become interested in work with tribal governments.

“Tribes will become a larger part of the overall economy,” he says. “As they become more mainstream, you’ll see more players getting involved.”

Copyright Northwest Business Press Inc. Nov 10, 2005

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