PCI subject to tax?

Published 11:18 am Monday, April 16, 2012

A special county commission meeting held Friday afternoon in Brewton may mark the beginning of a long legal battle between Escambia County and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians over whether or not the tribe should be subject to the same tax laws as other businesses in the county.

David Stokes, chairman of the Escambia County Commission, said a three-year-old ruling by the United States Supreme Court clearly states PCI should be paying taxes, ranging from property taxes to income, sales and cigarette taxes, in Escambia County.

“On February 24, 2009, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Carcieri v. Salazar, tossing out everything we thought we knew about the legal status of Poarch Creek Indian lands,” Stokes said.

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In that decision the Supreme Court ruled that under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the federal government has no legal authority to take land into trust for any Indian tribe that was not a “recognized tribe under federal jurisdiction” by 1934.

“The Poarch Band of Creek Indians received federal recognition in 1984 – fifty years too late to have lands lawfully set aside by the federal government beyond the reach of state and local taxation,” Stokes said.

Stoke said Alabama joined some twenty other states in filing briefs in support of the “this important challenge to overreaching federal power.”

Stokes also criticized the Obama administration for failing to enforce the ruling and claimed the president has “gone out of his way to slip language into each of his last three proposed budgets to overturn the Carcieri decision.”

In the meantime, Stokes said PCI has been “actively lobbying” Congress for a “Carcieri-fix” citing testimony given on Capitol Hill by PCI Governmental Relations Advisor Robbie McGhee stating: “The ‘fix’ must be passed. The uncertainty caused by this decision is stopping or delaying many projects across Indian country as tribes and financiers try to figure out if there is a Carcieri-related issue that they need to be concerned with. The decision opens the door to considerable confusion and potential inconsistencies concerning the status of tribal lands, tribal businesses and important civil and criminal jurisdictional issues.”

Stokes said the county commission is sympathetic to PCI’s situation and is simply attempting to protect the county’s tax base and citizens.

“We see the Poarch Creek’ predicament and recognize their disappointment,” Stokes said. “But a Supreme Court ruling is a Supreme Court ruling. With all due respect, the Poarch Creeks seem to be saying one thing to the people of Escambia County here at home and saying another in meeting with congressmen in Washington.”

Brandon Smith, county commissioner for district four, said he recognizes the situation both entities have been placed in but would have preferred to have gone about coming to a solution in a different way.

“I told them that I was against having this type meeting,” Smith said. “I was against hiring the attorney back at the first of the year.”
Smith said, rather than hashing out the commission’s concerns with the tribe’s current situation in a public setting, he would have preferred to handle the matter in a more neighborly way.

“Over that type meeting I’ve always favored having a sit-down discussion between the tribe and the county commission,” Smith said. “I think that should have been attempted before we had that kind of meeting. When you’re dealing with you neighbors, if you can’t sit down and reach some sort of middle of the road agreement, it’s not good.

Smith said it’s important, when dealing with an entity like PCI, to not forget the contributions they have made to the community.

“Over the years I’ve seen a lot of changes in (Atmore) and in our county and other counties around us,” he said. “I’ve seen other counties having layoff after layoff and the tribe’s going out there and putting two thousand people to work. There are some organizations that were on the verge of closing that the tribe stepped in and helped. We’re dealing with our neighbors and not neighbors from another state. They’re right here in our community.”

Stokes also touched briefly on the millions of dollars PCI has donated to local schools and organizations in recent years, but said the tribe is effectively shorting the county of tens of millions more by not paying taxes.

“They seem to be desperately pressuring Congress to overturn a Supreme Court ruling in order to avoid having to pay their fair share of taxes,” he said. “Based on Carcieri, the tribe actually owes our schools, our citizens and our county so much more – perhaps tens of millions of dollars every year. They apparently have no intention of conceding that the Supreme Court applies to them.”

Stokes said the overall goal of the Escambia County Commission is to look out for the citizens of the county.

“As county commissioners, we have a duty to protect our tax base from further erosion and to ensure that our tax laws are applied fairly and equally to all who are subject to the county’s taxable jurisdiction under the law. We intend to fulfill our obligations and stand up for the rights of the citizens and businesses of our county to equal protection under the law. All who owe taxes should pay taxes. It’s only tax-fairness we are seeking.”

Stephanie Bryan, vice chairman of the PCI Tribal Council, echoed the sentiment that the meeting should have been, at least, handled in a more discrete manner.

“We are shocked and appalled,” Bryan said. “Why couldn’t we sit down at the table and discuss this out in the open and do it as neighbors?”