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Mahnomen County off hook for back taxes

A federal judge in Minneapolis ruled last week that Shooting Star Casino is not subject to property taxes, closing a rancorous chapter between the White Earth Band of Chippewa and Mahnomen County.

The White Earth Band filed the lawsuit to stop foreclosure proceedings by the state and the county after the band stopped paying property taxes on casino land in 2006.

But another portion of the ruling by Federal Judge Michael J. Davis gives Mahnomen County a break.

The legal basis for the ruling in federal district court was that land purchased through the White Earth Land Settlement Act was automatically placed into trust status and not subject to taxation by state or county governments.

WELSA provided money to the White Earth Band in exchange for settling claims about tribal land taken illegally.

White Earth Tribal Attorney Joe Plummer said that the ruling concerning trust status was a given because he said Congress specifically used the WELSA Act for what White Earth did in purchasing land for the casino.

"If we take a look at the act, it's pretty ironclad," Plummer said.

The court dismissed the White Earth Band's claims for damages for all property taxes that have been paid on the casino land since 1993.

In his ruling, Davis cited that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives states immunity from lawsuits filed in federal court.

Davis said that because any monetary damages would affect the state of Minnesota, because a portion of property taxes goes to the state coffers, the state would be harmed if Mahnomen County had to pay back taxes.

If Mahnomen County was liable for back payments, it had the potential to bankrupt the county.

"It's a win for both sides," said Mahnomen County Attorney Julie Bruggeman.

The total amount of property taxes that the tribe paid to Mahnomen County was $9.7 million.

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said that the band is considering different avenues for trying to recoup the property tax money it has paid.

"We haven't decided what options to pursue," Vizenor said.

She is, though, pleased with the core ruling.

"It's very satisfying that the judge affirmed the White Earth Land Settlement Act," Vizenor said. "It means what it means."

Mahnomen County is weighing its options and will decide whether to appeal the ruling at its next county board meeting on Tuesday.

Mahnomen County Board Chairman Wally Eid, who represents District 1, said that commissioners are reviewing the facts.

His hope is that the board decides to accept the court's ruling.

"I hope they accept it and move on with life," Eid said.

The relationship between the county and the tribe needs to improve, he said, and both entities need to start working together for the betterment of the residents.

"When you have two governments arguing and fighting in court all the time, nobody wins and everyone loses," Eid said.