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Poulsbo rolls the dice on impact discussion

POULSBO — Councilman Ed Stern isn’t hoping for a big jackpot.

But he is hoping that the City of Poulsbo and the Suquamish Tribe may soon be able to lay all the cards out on the table with regards to Clearwater Casino’s impact on one of its nearest neighbors.

“It’s definitely a whole new day in terms of impact than it has been in the last 15 years,” Stern said this week. “It’s definitely Poulsbo that’s taking this impact. It’s not Bainbridge Island. It’s not Silverdale. It’s not Bremerton. It’s not Kingston.”

At its Jan. 5 meeting, the Poulsbo City Council’s Finance/Administration Committee had discussions with Senior Tribal Attorney Michelle Hansen, which members hope will become the first of many with the tribe. Stern initiated the idea of a dialog about Poulsbo’s perceived burden from casino traffic, with which a majority of council concurred and charged the Finance/Administration Committee with exploring the issue.

Stern said that more than anything, he’s interested in seeing Suquamish and Poulsbo enter into “friendly and thoughtful” discussions in a way that has never been done before.

“Legal, financial or cooperation — we want to explore impacts and find the best mitigation,” Stern commented. “It’s been the tribe’s proposal to deal with impacts financially but I don’t want to restrict this conversation to that.”

The initial meeting with the council committee and Hansen began the discussion with an overview of the history of tribal gaming and impact mitigation fees. Hansen said the main impetus of impact fees came from the fear that allowing tribal gaming would increase various other crimes that have been associated with gambling.

Though Port Madison Enterprises, the financial arm of the Suquamish that oversees the casino, admits there are some impacts to its neighbors, Hansen added that the creation of Clearwater Casino has mostly helped North Kitsap.

“The tribe’s view is the impacts of the casino have been mostly positive,” she said.

One of the biggest positives involves economic stimulation. Of Clearwater’s estimated 700 employees, about 12-15 percent are Native American and of those, about 3 percent are from tribes other than Suquamish.

“That means 85 percent of the employees there are non-Indians,” Hansen told the committee Wednesday. “So they come home and buy their groceries at Central Market and their appliances in Poulsbo or Silverdale.”

Hansen added that most tribal casinos are built on tax exempt land but Clearwater’s parcel is still on the tax rolls. She said that amounts to essentially the tribe paying double impacts because it pays property tax, which pays for police and fire departments, and also contributes impact mitigation fees.

But Stern countered that he believes there are real, negative impacts are only going to grow as the two jurisdictions continue to expand their boundaries toward one another.

He said Poulsbo Police Chief Jeff Doran showed him statistics that in the last year alone, arrests and stops by Poulsbo officers of individuals associated with the casino have doubled. But those are simply the stops where officers know the person has come from Clearwater. He said he believes there are numerous others where the person either lies about their origin or the information is not public.

Besides, Stern added, Poulsbo walks a fine line in trying to gather information on impacts because it understands that the casino is a good economic resource for North Kitsap.

“I believe the city feels we want to be good neighbors,” Stern commented. “We’re not against the casino. We don’t have any stance on gambling. We want them to do their business and we don’t want to harass casino patrons or employees ... We certainly don’t want to give anyone the impression that they’re doing anything wrong by coming through Poulsbo to get to the casino.”

But without hard numbers, Poulsbo is unable to prove definitively that there are real repercussions. Hansen pointed out that in terms of impact mitigation fees, the tribe isn’t legally required to dole out any money without being provided hard proof.

“But this is given without proof,” she said of the impact mitigation fees paid out since the fund started in 1996. “It’s a goodwill gesture.”

“What’s happened over the years is we’ve gotten to the point of agreeing to disagree,” Doran added of the funds Poulsbo receives. “I think the impacts are here but there’s virtually no way to prove them.”

Since it is the Impact Fee Mitigation Committee that is responsible for distributing money from the casino, Hansen suggested that is where Poulsbo should begin. The next committee meeting is this spring.

“If you want to talk about tribal casino impacts, you need to talk to the committee,” Hansen explained. “But if you want to talk about issues on a more global perspective, I think (the tribal council would) be open to that.”

Stern said he has a serious problem with the way the committee was created and now how it is run, especially since its members are those who receive the funds. He said since they have a vested interest in keeping their own pots of money and the status quo of not having to provide proof, he doubts the members would be willing to rethink the process.

“It’s not an impact mitigation board, it’s a happy money board and they’ve never really dealt with impact,” Stern commented.

Though no promises were made Wednesday, Stern said he hopes the outcome will be that the Suquamish Tribal Council would be willing to consider a joint meeting with the Poulsbo City Council in the near future. While the subject would be casino impacts, he pointed out that he’s not necessarily seeking impact mitigation fees but perhaps a better working relationship.

“I don’t care who the players are, the two parties need to enter into a discussion on a more thoughtful and meaningful level,” Stern said.

Sidebox:

Impact Mitigation Fees paid to the City of Poulsbo

2004 $0 *

2003 $10,000

2002 $0

2001 $10,000

2000 $5,000

1999 $0

1998 $16,800

1997 $8,040

1996 $9,000

Total $58,840

* Note: The $10,000 received in 2001 and 2003 are meant to be biennial awards and account for the $0 in 2002 and 2004. Finance Director Nanci Lien said there is no recorded explanation for the $0 received in 1999.

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