Press-Republican

November 23, 2013

Land claims tied to county budget

By DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

---- — MALONE — For a second time, Franklin County has discussed borrowing from an account holding millions in guaranteed funds connected to Indian land claims.  

Legislators need state permission to tap into $10 million being held until a settlement is reached in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s lawsuit against the state and county.

Mohawks say the state took a portion of its federally designated reservation without proper congressional approval. They filed a lawsuit seeking compensation, saying the terms of the Treaty of 1794 that defined the reservation’s boundaries were violated.

A negotiated settlement that was reached in 2005 but not ratified would, in part, have given Mohawks the right to buy back 7,000 acres of disputed properties from willing sellers.

In exchange, the county would have received $2 million a year in perpetuity for lost tax revenue from those parcels.

SPECIAL LEGISLATION

There are 793 parcels in the disputed area, and the longest-held unpaid tax debt on a parcel dates to 1978, according to the County Treasurer’s Office.

The county has taken title to 90 disputed properties: 75 in the Town of Bombay and 15 in the Town of Fort Covington.

County taxpayers have made the taxing entities whole each year by covering nearly $1 million in unpaid town, school and county taxes.

Now, the county is talking about borrowing from that account and deducting what it takes out from a future financial settlement in the lawsuit.

County Manager and Budget Officer Thomas Leitz said such a request has never been attempted, and it would take special legislation to change state-finance laws.

“The Association of Counties would help and elected officials in other counties,” he said.

‘STATE SHOULD PAY’

But Legislator Paul Maroun (R-Tupper Lake) said such a request would be complicated, and “you’d also take a chance we could alter the negotiations’ status, so I don’t think we should be banking on that.”

Legislator Timothy Burpoe (D-Saranac Lake) said the state should guarantee release of a share of the money.

“What’s $10 million to them?” he said. “They’d have skin in the game. It allows the state to reimburse us before we go to the table.”

Don Dabiew, a Bombay Democrat who will take office as District 5 legislator in January, agreed.   

“If the state doesn’t want us to repossess the property, they should pay for it,” he said.

SLOT-MACHINE PROFITS

The county is faced with raising taxes between 3 and 5 percent to pay for its $103.6 million budget in 2014 to improve its sluggish cash flow in the shadow of a scathing state audit that declared the county under significant financial stress.

Legislators were criticized for filing unbalanced budgets and depleting reserve accounts. 

The county had to borrow $4 million earlier this year to make towns and school districts whole for unpaid taxes.

But it plans to repay $1.8 million of that when its share of slot-machine profits come through, which are guaranteed in a separate agreement that the state, county and tribe have in regard to Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort profits.

The state and county, along with St. Lawrence County, share 25 percent of the slot-machine money generated at the casino in exchange for the tribe being allowed to operate the gaming establishment.  

However, in November 2011, the Mohawks stopped making the quarterly casino-related payments.

They claimed the state violated its eight-county gaming-exclusivity rights by allowing slot machines at the Ganienkeh Mohawk territory in Altona in Clinton County.

‘READY TO HONOR TERMS’

Gov. Andrew Cuomo negotiated a compromise where the casino payments would resume and land-claims discussions would start again.

Settlement on both issues was encouraged this week in a public statement from St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief Ron LaFrance.

He said tribal leaders “stand ready to honor” terms of the 2005 land-claims agreement and said the proposed 2014 county budget “underscores the benefits of ongoing discussions” between the parties.

“An agreement with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe would bring a clear and long-awaited resolution to discussions over jurisdiction and services,” LaFrance said.  

Email Denise A. Raymo:draymo@pressrepublican.com