County thinks back taxes still owed on piece of land taken into trust by tribe

Sep 24, 2013 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Commissioners were split in their opinions, however.

Back taxes led the Fremont County Commission to object Sept. 10 to the taking of a 199-acre parcel of lander into trust by the Northern Arapaho Tribe. The county board had no complaint with the tribe seeking to move a second, smaller property into trust.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe would like to take a 79-acre parcel at 685 Blue Sky Highway and a 199-acre parcel at 778 17 Mile Road into trust. The smaller tract includes the location of the Little Wind Casino in Ethete. Both are within the exterior boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The tribe has fee simple ownership of the properties.

Fremont County believes the Northern Arapaho Tribe owes $4,543 in back taxes on the 199-acre property but none on the smaller parcel, according to letters sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A motion to ask the 199-acre parcel not be taken into trust until all back taxes are paid on it failed at first on a 3-2 vote.

Fremont County Commissioners Larry Allen and Stephanie Kessler voted for the motion, while Travis Becker, Doug Thompson and Keja Whiteman voted against it.

Thompson changed his vote at the end of the meeting, allowing the motion to pass.

Though the county board voted in two ways, those who voted "no" voted that way for at least two different reasons.

"I understand it's going from the fee title to trust," Becker said. "But I have a real problem with the U.S. government continuing to get more land, whether it's in a title thing or whatever."

Thompson did not comment on the vote.

"I don't think the Northern Arapaho Tribe owes the county taxes," Whiteman said. "That's why I voted 'no.'"

She suspected the taxes accrued after the process started to bring the land into trust, she said in an interview. Whiteman has heard the procedure can take several years and did not think taxes should be levied on the land once the process starts.

"I do not oppose the Arapaho Tribe taking the land into trust," she said.

Whiteman also opposed the letter because the county through its treasurer has another method of collecting unpaid taxes, she said.

"I don't want to start another process," Whiteman said. "It looks like they're changing the stand policy because its the Northern Arapaho Tribe in order to penalize them, and I can't support that."

The government is not acquiring the land, she said at the meeting. The tribe owns the land already and is seeking to change the status of its ownership.

"That's correct, it's not a change in ownership, it's a change in type of ownership," deputy county attorney Jodi Darrough said.

Thompson originally voted against sending the letter because he thought taking the land into trust would lower the county's property taxes, he said in an interview.

If the parcels go into trust, the county would not be able to tax them and would lose some income. Property taxes levied on the larger parcel were $1,329 in 2013, and those on the smaller property with the casino were $10,434 this year.

"I still have the issue of taking if off the tax roles, but because the back taxes was on the letter I voted 'yes,'" Thompson said about changing his vote. "That's not just tribal (acquisitions), that's with any federal land."

He defended sending the letters to raise the objection about back taxes, saying it was not singling out the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

If a landowner owes too many property taxes, the Fremont County Treasurer's Office can sell the property at a tax sale, Thompson said. He did not think the letters interfered with the treasurer's process.

"(The BIA) asked if there are back taxes, we were saying, 'yes, there are.' We're not subverting (the Treasurer's) process," Thompson said. "He can employ that whenever it's legally appropriate."

With the motion passing at the Sept. 10 meeting, the county board sent a letter to the BIA requesting the land not be taken into trust until "the back taxes, as well as any interest and penalties are paid in full."

Even with the formal letter, the BIA is not obligated to resolve the objection.

Commissioners sent a letter to the BIA regarding the smaller tract as well. The second missive responded to questions from the federal agency regarding the annual amount of property taxes levied on the property, governmental services provided, zoning and special assessments.

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