More than half the federal and state funding since 2002 for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has gone to its tribal program that provides services to low-income people.

The Tribal TANF program is a personalized version of the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare plan that tribes, by law, have the latitude to design to suit their needs.

For the Graton Rancheria, 2008 was a banner year. After six years of trying, it launched its own TANF program. substantially augmenting its housing and related social services. It has since received about $16.5 million, or roughly $3 million a year, in combined federal and state funds for the program.

As of March, 146 people — 52 adults and 94 children — were enrolled, qualifying for monthly cash grants or employment assistance such as counseling and job training, according to the state Department of Social Services, which contributes about half the yearly TANF funding.

The recipients make up 61 families. Of those, 53 get cash assistance while the other eight get only other forms of aid, said Michael Weston, the department spokesman, who said the tribe reported those client numbers.

It was unclear how many families are served during a full year. The tribe has declined to discuss details of its assistance programs.

At a glance, those numbers suggest a membership with fewer low-income people than are described in tribal surveys.

According to federal reports of the Graton Rancheria housing program, the most recent tribal survey, in 2007, concluded that 71 percent of respondents in its eight-county service area were low-income.

But the numbers of TANF recipients provided by the state may not completely measure the number of tribal members who need aid.

That's because funds the Graton Rancheria gets for its TANF program are based on a 1994 Census of American Indians in the service area, a much lower number. The tribe gets considerably less than it would under a current census, limiting its TANF program's reach.

Also, the tribe early on made a decision to use its TANF monies to assist other Indians in the area who are not tribal members. It now manages the Tribal TANF program for both Sonoma and Marin counties, serving at least three other local tribes, though not the 1,100-member Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, which owns River Rock Casino.

Tribal chairman Greg Sarris would not provide a breakdown of how many TANF recipients are tribal members and how many are not. Weston, of the state social services department, said the number of TANF clients included those served by both the federal and state funding streams for the program.

In an interview, Sarris said that monthly cash advances from the tribe's Las Vegas-partner, Station Casinos, were used to help fill the need created by the growing membership.

Starting in 2003, Station Casinos advanced the tribe $100,000 a month to use as it saw fit. Since 2009, that amount has been $90,000 a month.

"We've all along been subsisting with money from Station," Sarris said.

"We have a system prioritizing the neediest of the needy and that's an ugly situation," he said. "But it's the situation we're in until we can start to supplement it with casino income."

Quarterly financial reports give a sense of the tribe's priorities.

A financial report obtained from the federal Department of Health and Human Services shows that in 2009, as the tribe got its program off the ground, of $1,570,412 in federal funds the tribe got for the TANF program:

$514,848 was spent on assistance programs, $422,281 of it on cash aid;

$270,257 was used for what are called nonassistance services that include employment training, job counseling and child care.

$549,599, or 35 percent, went for administration, far exceeding the program's 15 percent administrative spending cap.

But by last year, records show the TANF program, now managed by tribe Vice Chairwoman Lorelle Ross, was spending far less on overhead.

Of the $1,444,286 the tribe received that year for TANF from the state, $624,269 was spent on assistance, 82 percent of that on cash payments; $182,474, or 12 percent of the total, was spent on administration, and $578,269 on nonassistance expenditures.

Other income that has helped support tribal members comes from the state's Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, or RSTF. That comes from casino revenue from other tribes that is distributed to tribes without casinos.

As of March, the Graton Rancheria has received a total of $12,092,594 in RSTF payments, in quarterly installments that equal about $1.1 million a year. It elected to apportion it among its members, according to audits of the tribe's financial statements obtained from the federal government.

Sarris would not say how the RSTF money is divided. Several members also declined to detail the payments.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.