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'Our dreams must be big'

Debt reduction, new building projects and stable tribal government are some of the accomplishments of the past year listed by White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor in her "State of the Band" address Thursday in Mahnomen.

Here are some of the things the band hopes to accomplish this year:

• Federal trust status for the Shooting Star casino property in Mahnomen:

The band has paid about $9 million in property taxes divided among Mahnomen County, the City of Mahnomen and the Mahnomen School District, among other entities, over 12 years, Vizenor said. It has been the only casino in Minnesota to pay property taxes, she added.

"The mortgage on the property has been cleared, a requirement before any application for trust status can be considered," Vizenor said.

She has been talking to county commissioners about continuing some kind of payment-in-lieu-of-taxes after trust status is granted, but she made no mention of that in her speech, saying simply that trust status will save the tribe about $1 million a year in taxes.

The loss of Shooting Star property tax revenue will mean big service cuts or big tax hikes in Mahnomen County and particularly the City of Mahnomen, County Auditor Frank Thompson said in an interview.

Last year, the tribe paid about $921,000 in property taxes, he said.

Just under $151,000 went to the City of Mahnomen. Another $67,000 went to the Mahnomen School District. The Wild Rice Watershed District collected about $31,000. And the state received nearly $206,000 of those property taxes.

The casino/hotel/event center complex is the biggest taxpayer in Mahnomen County, which received about $464,000 as its share of property taxes paid by the band last year, Thompson said. That was out of a total tax levy of just over $3 million.

Thompson said the county has had no official word on the trust status of the casino land, but if those property tax dollars are lost, the people who live in the City of Mahnomen will be hardest hit.

"Folks in Mahnomen will see their taxes go up substantially," he said.

Self-governance through the Department of the Interior.

"We have paid off the debt from the past mismanagement and corruption," Vizenor said. "Our audits are clean."

Self-governance will allow the band to have more control over federal funds and programs. The housing improvement program priority list will be set by the band, not the BIA for example.

"Programs like roads, law enforcement, employment and training will now be decided by those of us who work closest with our people and know best the needs and priorities," Vizenor said. The other 10 Indian bands in Minnesota are self-governing, she added.

• The band took in $6.25 million in profits from the Shooting Star Casino last fiscal year (which runs Oct. 1-Sept. 30), according to information from the tribe.

Other revenue came from about $3.2 million from Minnesota sales tax rebate and $300,000 reimbursement from the BIA.

The band has 1,679 employees in all areas of government, including those who work at the Shooting Star complex. They generate a payroll of $40.2 million, pay about $10.4 million in payroll taxes and receive about $7.9 million in benefits.

According to the band, it pays about $991,000 a year in local property taxes.

• Increase the tribal land base.

In 1867, when the White Earth Reservation was established, it consisted of more than 850,000 acres. "Today we have a mere 58,000 acres of trust land on the White Earth Reservation, with the Minnesota Chippewa tribe owning 90 percent of those acres," Vizenor said. It is only though an accident of history that the Chippewa tribe -- consisting of six Minnesota bands -- owns White Earth land, and the council has asked for return of that land, she said.

• The tribe has a podiatry clinic in connection with its diabetes project, and has a bookmobile-sized Wellness on Wheels van to takes services on the road to reservation communities.

And the Tribal Council just approved construction of a behavioral treatment center for chemical dependency and mental health services.

• The tribe wants to take over administration of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

"The five-year clock on welfare benefits has run out on tribal members who are no better off now than five years ago," Vizenor said. "Now these unfortunate clients have no benefits and nowhere to turn. I'm a firm believer the tribe can administer the TANF job activities and programs far better than the state has ever done in the past."

• The tribal court will soon gain control over child protection and out-of-home-placement for Indian children -- and over child support services. Vizenor praised chief judge Anita Fineday for running a professional court system, and noted she presided over 600 cases the past year.

• White Earth will purchase four shuttle buses to help residents get around. The system should be operational by the end of summer.

• A new fire hall, ambulance station and shuttle bus garage will soon be completed at White Earth Village.

• Construction will start in the spring on a new community center in White Earth Village.

• The tribe is working with Minnesota Sate University Moorhead to ensure greater success rate for Indian college students.

• Planning is under way for a new K-12 Circle of Life School, to be built on the old mission site south of White Earth Village.

• In September, the tribe will open a $6.2 million, 48-unit housing complex for Shooting Star employees in Mahnomen.

• To find a stable funding source for the tribal police department, the council is working on retroceding Public Law 280, which will allow the tribe to receive federal BIA funds.

• Vizenor also praised work done by village community councils on the reservation, and pledged her continuing support to local initiatives.

She also addressed constitutional change, including the need for an independent tribal judiciary; the Shooting Star Casino (the tribe does publish financial statements, contrary to a claim made by secretary-treasurer candidate John B. Buckanaga, Vizenor said); and the need to eradicate crime and drugs.

"Our dreams must be big and our communities healthy and strong if we are to see progress in education, housing and jobs," she said.