Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 1, 2014

Newsmakers: County continues to appeal Band land trust

By MICHELLE MERLIN mmerlin@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.

TRAVERSE CITY -- Grand Traverse County officials continue to dispute a decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to place two parcels totaling 170 acres in Acme Township into trust.

Land put into trust is exempt from local taxes and owned by the federal government on behalf of a Native American tribe. The Acme Township land in question is owned by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and for now has not been developed, but county officials worry it could be more valuable in the future.

“The more land that goes into trust and then is developed, they could put things that are worth millions of dollars on that land and would never be taxed,” David Benda, the Grand Traverse County administrator, said. “All we’re doing is trying to protect taxpayers’ interest.”

The parcels are north of M-72 and between the Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel and the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.

Regional BIA officials in July rejected the county’s first appeal of the land trust arrangement, but county leaders plan to appeal the decision to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, the final authority on the issue. Officials hope to send the appeal in January.

The county’s appeal focuses on a 2008 case that says only tribes under federal jurisdiction in 1934 are eligible to put land into trust.

The county argues that the Band was not under federal jurisdiction at that time, although the Michigan Agency of the BIA asserts otherwise in a February letter.

Regional BIA officials agreed with the Michigan Agency and upheld the initial decision to put the land into trust, Benda said.

“I don’t know that we will get a different result,” Benda said. “We’re exhausting the administrative process.”

Band members could not be reached for comment. Denise Barrientoz, Executive Assistant to the CEO at Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos, said Band authorities declined to comment.

Larry Inman, a county commissioner who is involved in negotiations with the Band, said the county would drop its appeal if the Band made a written commitment to pay local taxes on the land.

“We want the value of that land to be taxed so we can get returned funds to support police and other services,” Inman said.

The relationship between municipalities and the tribe is complicated by a compact with the state that requires the tribe to send 2 percent of its electronic gambling revenue to local units of government. The compact expired at the end of November, and a new agreement has yet to be reached.

In recent weeks discussions with the tribe stalled, Inman said.

“If I was a tribal member on their board, I would have to wait and see what the compact from the state of Michigan is like before I can negotiate with Grand Traverse County,” Inman said.

Inman said Band members said the property taxes could be taken out of the 2 percent amount, but county officials were unwilling to use those funds, which normally go to local nonprofits.

The two properties in question generated about $19,500 in taxes in 2011, $2,900 of which were collected by the county.