Commission, PCI dispute over taxes continues

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ongoing dispute between the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Escambia County Commission over taxes has now reached the federal level and PCI officials say the consequences could include the closing of Wind Creek Casino and Hotel and the loss of thousands of jobs in Atmore.
Following a public meeting last week in Brewton announcing the commission’s intention to seek taxes from the Tribe, commission chairman David Stokes sent a letter to the U.S.
Secretary of the Interior urging the department to act on a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court
ruling the commission feels renders PCI subject to county taxes.
With the matter now in federal hands and the commission awaiting a response, officials on both sides of the issue have expressed the need for the two governmental bodies to meet and discuss the matter. Although no such meeting has been held as of yet, both the ECC and PCI say their doors are open.
“We’ve asked and offered to meet with them and they’ve made no effort to meet with us,” PCI Tribal Chairman Buford Rolin said Tuesday. “They seem to have decided to have a discussion among themselves. We’ve never refused to meet with them. We’d like the support of all commissioners. The door’s open, we’ve left it open.”
Stokes said the issue is plain and simple — everyone should pay their fair share of taxes, but also said a meeting to discuss concerns is welcomed.
“Our door has always been open,” Stokes said. “We are ready at anytime to discuss this matter and come to a resolution over this issue.”
Stokes said previous attempts by members of the commission to have an audience with tribal officials have gone unanswered.
“The ball is now in their court,” Stokes said. “We would circle the wagons around them if they would just agree to pay their fair share of taxes like everyone else.”
PCI Tribal Councilman Arthur Mothershed said claims that the commission has attempted to reach out to the Tribe are simply untrue.
“We’ve heard chairman Stokes make reference several times to the fact that commissioners have reached out to the council,” Mothershed said. “That hasn’t happened.”
With both entities claiming to have attempted contact, the issue has now reached a stalemate of sorts, but Mothershed said Tuesday a resolution will be soon needed to avoid shutting down the Tribe’s casino and costing many Escambia County residents their jobs.
“We feel very confident in our legal position,” Mothershed said. “But let’s just say, hypothetically, they succeed. Wind Creek closes. Not only Wind Creek in Atmore. Wind
Creek in Wetumpka closes and the economic impact is devastating.”
Mothershed said the massive job losses alone would be crippling to many local families, the majority of whom are not Tribal members but citizens of Escambia County.
“The loss of jobs should be first and foremost on the commissions’ mind,” he said. “But also think about the law enforcement we provide, the fire services we provide, the support to the schools and other organizations. That goes away. (The commission) has to be prepared to increase their budgets with decreased revenue.”
Currently Mothershed said PCI annually gives $100,000 dollars to the county commission to spend how they see fit. Mothershed added a provision that allows for an increase in that amount would have been a better avenue for the county if they felt PCI was not doing their fair share.
“We have an intergovernmental agreement with the county that dates back to 2007 whereby we agreed to pay $100,000 a year, and have done so.” He said. “The agreement actually allows for an increase of up to $500,000. There’ a provision that states if the county felt that there is a greater impact to the county because of our operations, they would call us or come meet with us and between the two governmental bodies we would decide what that impact was. But chairman Rolin’s office has not received any correspondence from (Stokes’) office. That would have been the proper way to do it. Not having a behind the doors press conference. When you have an agreement between two agencies that is completely the wrong way to handle it.”
Mothersheld also pointed out that, while PCI does not pay taxes on the land in trust, their remaining acreage is on county property and is subject to county taxes.
“Only 400 acres of our land is in trust,” he said. “The other 8,300 we pay property taxes to the county for every year just like every good tax paying citizen.”
At the heart of the matter is that 400 acres of land, including the casino site, that PCI officials say continues to be “in trust” for the Tribe and should not be subject to taxation by the county. Commissioner for District 4, Brandon Smith, has opposed the county’s attempt from the start and said, if the commission is successful, the closure of Wind
Creek would cost far more revenue for the county than taxing the 400 acres would produce.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Smith said. “You can’t collect taxes and keep the casino.
If thing goes through, the only thing they can do is draw taxes off the dirt the casino is sitting on and an empty building.
Smith also said the loss of Wind Creek would have more far reaching effects, including less people getting an education and returning to Atmore and the halt of progress at Rivercane, the City of Atmore’s development property adjacent to the casino.
“What I want people to understand is the ramifications of all of this,” Smith said. “First of all there are 2000 jobs. We’ve got an industry here that now people go off to college and now they come back here to work. We’ve never had that before. To have that industry says a lot for a small town. And then you take all of the donations the tribe has given in the last three years, you take that away. The economic impact the casino has had on Rivercane. We’ve got new hotels out there. We’ve got new restaurants out there and those things are staying packed. You take those jobs away. Those people live in this county. They shop in this county and they pay taxes here. And (the commission) cannot tell me the little bit of tax they are going to receive off this 400 acres is going to be more than what they are receiving now. There is no possible way.”
Stokes said closing the casino has never been the mission of the ECC, but said PCI is causing more harm than good by not paying taxes.
“That would be an unintended consequence,” Stokes said. “They are the ones putting jobs at risk because of their opposition to pay taxes like everyone else.”
Addressing the issue of gambling Rolin and Mothershed said they have seen no evidence of any moral issues the county has taken against the casino, but expressed their surprise over the county’s hiring of attorney Bryan Taylor, an Alabama Senator and former advisor to then-governor Bob Riley, whose administration conducted raids on Alabama casinos.
“I find myself questioning their alignment with Bryan Taylor,” Mothershed said. “That’s a very unusual partner. He’s a state senator and former policy advisor for Bob Riley and I don’t think it is any secret about how the former governor felt about gambling and all of the sudden Bryan Taylor shows up in our backyard.”
As both PCI and the ECC now wait for a response from the Department of the Interior, Rolin said the Tribe would be waiting for some contact should the commission truly want to come to a resolution.
“The county initiated this thing, so they’re going to have to be the one to stop it,” Rolin said. “If the county is saying they want to sit down and talk, we’ll wait for that phone call. We’re willing to sit down with them and discuss whatever they have to offer.”
Mothershed said, while the Tribe is open to discuss the matter, they are firm on their legal position.
“We’re certainly willing to sit and down and talk, but I think I speak on behalf of the whole Tribal Council in saying that we’re not going to be held hostage by a press conference or some letter to the Interior,” he said.
Smith said shining a spot light on the issue by sending the matter to a federal body, however, may have begun a process that cannot be reversed.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “(The commission) may have started something they cannot stop with this.”

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