Taxes still in debate; Commissioner questions attorney motives
Escambia County Commissioner Brandon Smith questioned the “personal agenda” of attorney Bryan Taylor who was hired to consult with the commission concerning tax issues attached to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
Smith said his reason for challenge of Taylor’s employment by the county is due to comments made to him by residents in the district he represents — a district attached to Tribal lands.
“I don’t feel like he’s the best person to represent this commission,” Smith said. “Everybody knows his history with former Governor Riley. Everybody I’ve talked to knows he was on Riley’s campaign to shut down casinos and they feel that’s what he’s here to do.”
Chairman David Stokes said the commission’s position on the issue remains the same as it did a month ago when a press conference was held to state their stance.
“Where we are now is the same place we were on April 13,” Stokes said. “Our position is not to shut the casino down. The only thing we’ve asked for is tax revenue. We could have a compact with the state. It would be a PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) and that would be my preference.”
Smith said if PCI is required to pay taxes on property as suggested in the Carceeri vs. Salazar decision, that fact would force the closing of the Wind Creek Casino currently operated by PCI gaming officials on land held in trust for the Tribe.
“That casino would have to shut down then because the property would go back to the state,” Smith said. “No way they’ll allow the casino to stay open on state property. My concern is the 2,000 jobs there and at Rivercane. With Taylor’s past of being on the bandwagon to shut down casinos in Alabama, that’s what he’s here to do now.”
Commissioner Larry White agreed that Taylor was hired to do a job — advise on legal issues.
“He is an attorney,” White said. “He is making no effort on the part of the commission to shut the casino down. We’re not trying to close the casino down and kick out 1,000 jobs. But, if it’s (tax revenue) due to the people of this county, then it’s due to the people.”
White also noted that if PCI gaming machines at Wind Creek meet the criteria under state rules, the casino would not be shut down.
“Class II gaming is legal in Alabama,” White said. “I haven’t seen evidence that it doesn’t comply. The Bureau of Indian Affairs says the machines are not illegal.”
Based on a value of $230,000 — an amount Poarch officials say they paid for the current casino facility just last year, the increased tax revenue would be just over $1.5 million annually.
Jim Hildreth, tax assessor for Escambia County, said there are several options available to calculate amounts owed in taxes for such a facility.
“There are three applications that can be used to determine taxes due,” Hildreth said. “There is the income application that is calculated based on income for a three-year period; a cost application and a market application. Using a cost application of $240 millioon for that facility, the state and county taxes would amount to $1.680 million annually. That would put $192,000 into the general fund.”
White said any increase in revenues would benefit the entire county and not just a portion or chosen areas.
“Education would be the number one beneficiary from tax revenues,” White said.
Stokes also said others in the county would benefit greatly from any increase in tax revenues for the county.
“The Poarch Creek Indians have taken away law enforcement officers and firemen by paying more than we can afford to pay,” Stokes said. “They are competing with us with the profits from the people who live here. We want to provide law enforcement and fire protection for our people and provide better for our schools. Increases in tax revenues would allow us to better fund our fire departments, hospital, schools and the maintenance of our roads and bridges. If they would come to the table and discuss a solution, we would rescind a request.”
Stokes told Smith an open invitation has been extended to PCI officials but they have not accepted.
“If they would come to the table and make us a part of the solution we could make this work,” Stokes said. “If they would just come to the table, all those jobs could stay. We’re not trying to put them on state property and we will try to protect them being Federally recognized. All we’ve done is brought all of this to light. All we’ve done is state our position – that’s all.”
Smith said the April press conference was essentially a step by the commission to take action against PCI.
“We took action when we had that press conference,” Smith said. “That amplified some hard feelings. I want this commission to have a good relationship with Poarch Creek Indians.”
Commissioner David Quarter, who also represents a district adjoining tribal lands, said he has heard many of the same comments from residents in and around tribal lands.
“I’ve heard a lot of the same comments about Taylor,” Quarker said. “But I think Poarch Creek Indians are using that as a crutch to make us make a decision. He (Taylor) can’t go any further than we allow him to go. I think having him as our attorney may have put a damper on any negotiations. Maybe we can sit down to come to some kind of agreement. At this point, I think we’re going to have to play it out.”
A letter requesting the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior was sent last month by the commission. Stokes said the letter requested a response within 60 days. No response has been received as of May 15, Stokes said.