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PCI files legal action against tax assessor

By Justin Schuver, Publisher of The Atmore Advance

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) has filed a legal action against Escambia County Tax Assessor Jim Hildreth, who has sought to tax the tribe’s trust land in the county.

The action was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

In a statement, PCI Tribal Chairman Stephanie Bryan said the action was necessary “to stop the financial harassment undertaken against us in recent years by an Escambia County official whose actions on this issue do not represent the best interests of county residents — including us.”

Bryan said that Hildreth recently conducted an “audit” of the tribe’s property, which included both privately owned land that is subject to local taxes, as well as trust land that is not. She said that Hildreth then informed the tribe that he was prepared to issue an assessment of taxes for the tribe’s trust lands.

“His initial demand is not supported by law,” Bryan said.

The county has been battling with PCI for several years, seeking to assess and tax PCI land by using a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case for its argument. In that case, Carcieri vs. Salazar, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not take land into trust from tribes that received federal recognition after 1934. PCI received its federal recognition in 1984, and the tribe’s land was taken into trust in 1985.

Previously, PCI has argued that the Carcieri decision applies only to pending trust land applications, and not those that have already taken place.

Bryan said that Hildreth is ignoring federal law, as well as an Attorney General’s opinion that was issued in 1986 at his request, which specifically stated that the tribe’s trust land was not taxable.

Bryan also noted that the U.S. Department of the Interior has previously affirmed the trust status of PCI’s lands.

“Despite the Department of the Interior’s very recent statement on the tribe’s trust lands in Escambia County, Hildreth ignored the facts and pursued his aggressive plan to tax our reservation lands,” Bryan said. “Once again, the taxpayers of Escambia County will be forced to pay for a legal position that has already been rejected.”

Bryan pointed out that PCI has donated more than $5.5 million to schools and charities in the county, since 2012.

“The tribe understands that laws dealing with the status of Indian lands are complicated and require solid expertise,” Bryan said. “But the appropriate authorities in both state and federal government have consistently maintained that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is a federally recognized Indian nation with lands that are held in trust by the federal government and therefore, are not subject to taxation.

“It is unfortunate that a handful of elected officials in the county continue to waste taxpayer dollars on a legal position that is frivolous, costly and does not recognize the goodwill between the tribe and its neighbors.”

More information will be added to this story as it develops.