Casino land closer to trust

SUQUAMISH — The concept that the Suquamish Tribe wants to transfer 13 acres of land from fee-simple to trust status is nothing new.

In fact, since the parcel that houses the Clearwater Casino was purchased by the tribe in 1988, tribal officials have been trying to change the land’s status.

Now, some 17 years later, the tribe is close to accomplishing that goal. Even so, it seems to have taken a lot of people by surprise.

The Federal Register published a public notice Jan. 18 from the United States Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs of the BIA Secretary’s decision to acquire the 12.72 acres of land into trust. The notice is required to be published at least 30 days prior to accepting the property into trust.

The 30-day waiting period, which ends Feb. 17, also allows interested parties to seek judicial review of the final decision before the transfer of the title occurs, according to the notice.

Currently, the property is under “fee-simple” status, which means the land is owned by the tribe but has not been put into trust. Trust land is property owned by the tribe but held in trust by the federal government. As such, no county or local property taxes will be paid on the parcel.

But for the tribe, the change is just a means of getting part of its homelands back, said Suquamish Tribal chairman Bennie Armstrong. The 30-day grace period is merely one of the final steps in the process before any major decision is made.

“We feel this is no brainer,” Armstrong said. “This is within the exterior boundaries of the reservation. It’s a pretty simple (decision).”

The BIA has already completed an “exhaustive study” of the property, including potential impacts to the environment, he added.

However, the idea seems to have come as a surprise to some of the local taxing districts and their budgets that would be affected by this transfer.

In 2003, prior to the construction of the new casino, the land was valued at $1.103 million and the tribe paid $15,196.66 in taxes. However, the increased value due to the improvements took effect in 2004, bringing the assessed value to $33 million and the tribe paid $446,160.70 in property taxes.

Now the property has been reassessed at $36,163,470 and the tribe is expected to pay $458,288.72 in property taxes for 2005, said Kitsap County Assessor Jim Avery.

From the tax collected, it would be broken down and distributed as such:

$107,081 – state school fund

$15,175 – Kitsap Regional Library

$144,426 – North Kitsap School District

$47,322 – county general fund

$62,132 – county road fund

$74,109 – North Kitsap Fire & Rescue

$3,335 – Kitsap Public Utilities District 1

$1,906 – Poulsbo Library Facilities Bond

However, the day the property is put into trust status is the day it goes off the tax rolls, Avery said. The tribe would be sent a bill for the pro-rated tax when it was fee-simple land for the year.

And if that happens, the agencies that had budgeted for that money will be cut short for 2005. Avery hopes if the transfer takes place this year, it would happen later rather than sooner so affected agencies will be able to receive most of the funding.

As for the financial loss on the tax rolls, Avery said the cost would be put on taxpayers who would pay an additional $19 on their property taxes, based on the average cost of a $200,000 home in Kitsap County. This tax shift, however, would not take place until 2006, he said.

Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen said she has not seen the latest assessed values and property taxes for the parcel and expects to discuss the situation with her fellow commissioners Jan Angel and Patty Lent during their bimonthly commissioners meeting Jan. 31. However, no decision on any action from the county will be made until the county talks with the tribe about possible mitigation.

“We don’t have to appeal in order to talk about mitigation,” she said.

Endresen also said she feels there is much misinformation and rumors floating around about what the tribe and county can do, including if the county files an appeal, that would help put a stop to putting the land into trust, which is not true, she said.

Armstrong said he believes the numbers that have been calculated around the county this week have been “inflated.”

It is true that the value of the land did increase when the new casino was built, he said, but regardless of whether the value increased or not, people were still paying taxes on it. Property taxes aside, the tribe financially supports the non-native community in several ways, he added.

Local non-profits benefit from the tribe’s Appendix X fund distributions several times a year, he said. The funds come from a portion of the profits of the casino’s electronic gaming machines. The North Kitsap School District is one of those groups that benefit, he explained, as the tribe gave $81,000 in 2003 and $63,000 in 2004 to NKSD.

The tribe also pays impact mitigation fees to local police and fire agencies, including the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, Poulsbo Police Department, Bainbridge Island Police Department and several local fire and emergency aid agencies. Impact fees have been a point of contention between area law enforcement and the tribe. Officials from PPD and the KCSO claim the casino’s impact on their agencies warrants additional funds from the Suquamish. The tribe disagrees with this position.

“The county has had plenty of time to comment on it,” Armstrong said, noting that this 30-day review is just a “cooling” period to make sure all the proper paper work and research has been done.

Wednesday: A look at the affected agencies and more of the tribe’s response to community reactions

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