Conversation leads to controversy between board and bandby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Tensions are heating up between St. Louis County Commissioners and the county's two Ojibwe communities. County officials are concerned about a loss of taxable land to the bands, and a band leader is accusing some commissioners of bias.
Duluth, Minn. — With the economy in a recession and a budget shortfall threatening money from the state, counties worry more than ever about how to provide services, and how to maintain a tax base to pay for those services.
In St. Louis County, officials say they're slowly losing otherwise taxable property to the county's two Indian bands, as well as other tax-exempt groups like nonprofits and government agencies.
Maintaining tax base is a particular concern to County Board Chairman Dennis Fink. Fink raised the issue for discussion in a January meeting, and in particular he wanted to challenge the Fond du Lac Ojibwe band's effort to place a 33-acre parcel into federal trust, leaving it tax-exempt.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recently gave the plan a green light, and Fink isn't happy about it.
"In 1997, when I took on this office, we were 59 percent publicly owned, according to the DNR. As of last year, the DNR put out another report and it said that we were 63 percent publicly owned, which means we haven't had a great deal of success of maintaining some kind of stability between the balance of what's public and what's private," said Fink.
Losing taxable property, he says, makes it difficult to pay for services like road maintenance, fire protection and search and rescue. County commissioners decided in January to appeal the BIA's decision on the one parcel, and to avoid selling additional county parcels to the Ojibwe bands until the issue was settled.
That decision irritates Ojibwe leaders, as do some of the comments recorded in that January meeting. There were no representatives of the county's two Ojibwe bands present at the meeting. Band leaders have listened to a recording posted on the Web site of a group called We Are Watching.
The recording, which is of poor quality, captures comments of Commissioner Peg Sweeney, whose district includes the northern half of the Fond du Lac reservation. At one point, she states that she represents "these people."
That phrase, "these people," is troubling to Fond du Lac Band Chairwoman Karen Diver.
"I never thought that I would see an elected representative who represents the northern end of Fond du Lac call them 'those people,'" said Diver.
Diver takes issue both with the taxable property debate, and with what she says is the tone of the discussion.
Diver says the band serves the greater public by repairing and maintaining public roads, and through its own economic development efforts which generate some $65 million a year in payroll and benefits.
This afternoon, local Indian leaders held a rally in front of the St. Louis County Courthouse, led by an Ojibwe drum circle. Ricky Defoe represents a Duluth American Indian Commission.
"The fear of revenue loss to the county, just a few thousand dollars, is short-sighted," said Defoe. "Stereotyping us as a group as somehow being a burden on the county, while maintaining silent about our contribution, is offensive and disrespectful."
Commissioners Sweeney and Fink are both out of town today and unable to comment on the rally or Diver's complaint. Yesterday, before Diver listed her complaints to MPR, Commissioner Fink declined to talk specifically about the January conversation.
"I don't remember exactly what was said in each case, and I have not reviewed any of the Web pages on that, or asked our auditor for an audio copy of it, yet," said Fink.
Fink says the County Commission will set up meetings with the two Ojibwe bands to discuss a wide range of issues. Fond du Lac tribal Chair Karen Diver says not so fast.
"The unfortunate nature of their remarks is going to make those conversations difficult," said Diver.
Diver says she wants to hear an apology from the commissioners first.
- All Things Considered, 02/12/2009, 5:24 p.m.