Tribe's property taxes canceled

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After a meeting with Coeur d'Alene Tribe officials today, Kootenai County commissioners voted unanimously to cancel all property taxes on reservation land from the past four years.

The vote followed years of county and tribal staff deciphering issues with taxed tribal land, after a policy shift in 2006 saw Idaho counties taxing reservation property for the first time.

The commissioners said their decision today was based on respect of the tribe's sovereignty. 

Other governments within county borders aren't subject to property taxes, they acknowledged.

"I had one person comment, 'Just because the tribe gives (taxing districts) a lot of money, are you going to do this?'” said Commissioner Dan Green, addressing the full tribal council gathered in the commissioners' chambers. “No, I also respect the sovereignty. I respect it is another government."

The commissioners voted to cancel all outstanding county-applicable taxes, penalties and interest for reservation property from the last half of 2009, and the full years of '10, '11 and '12.

County staff hadn’t calculated the total tax amount yet. The tribe estimates the figure is over $400,000.

The tribe had not paid property taxes in those years. The county had stayed the taxes, so the two governments could sort out complicated ownership issues over the taxed land.

Chief Allan, tribal council chair, called the vote a sign of the county and tribe's friendship.

"This shows what you can do when governments work together, instead of fighting," Allan said.

He acknowledged the tribe had paid the county some property taxes as far back as 2006. 

The tribe would just let those dollars go, Allan said, adding that’s “part of working together.”

Tribal officials had actually requested the commissioners stop taxing reservation land entirely. 

Idaho’s constitution reads that the state disclaims all right and title to tribal lands, tribe lobbyist Helo Hancock reminded the commissioners before their vote.

"One hundred years went by with that being effective law," Hancock said, adding that the tribe prefers to settle the matter without litigation.

But the commissioners said they only have authority to cancel the tribe's assessed taxes. 

Only the Legislature can provide legal absolution on whether reservations aren’t taxable, they said.

House Bill 140, proposed this session, would officially exempt reservation land from property tax.

"The rules we have on assessing and taxing are set, until the legislation changes," said Commissioner Todd Tondee. 

Allan said after the vote that he has hopes the bill “resolves the problem.”

According to the commissioners and county staff, the taxation of tribal property in 2006 was the result of a few factors, including a new tax assessment program. 

The state attorney general had also issued an opinion about the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision Yakima County v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Indian Nation.

The ruling states that a county can impose ad valorem taxes on reservation land, patented in fee pursuant to the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887.

“There’s no binding federal court decision regarding the Idaho Constitution that would definitely answer the question,” said county attorney Pat Braden. "Even though there is a law that favors the counties, there's still legal uncertainty.”

Hancock said the tribe has donated over $10 million to taxing districts and county services, he said, “10 or 20 times” what the tribe’s property taxes would provide.

The commissioners can’t cancel future taxes, Green noted after the meeting.

“We’re able to cancel taxes that have been assessed,” the commissioner said. “If the legislation doesn’t pass, I would suspect (the tribe) would be back here next year.”

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