The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe made significant progress yesterday in its race to maintain the inside track for a gaming license for the Southeastern Massachusetts region.
After more than two hours of questioning and debate last night, the Taunton City Council voted 6 to 1 to approve an intergovernmental agreement with the tribe. The tribe has announced plans to build a $500 million destination resort casino in Taunton, near the intersection of Routes 24 and 140.
The vote came on the same day that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs announced it has scheduled a pair of public hearings as part of its review of the tribe’s application for an initial reservation. The BIA decision, published yesterday in the Federal Register, is the first indication from the agency that it is actively reviewing the tribe’s new land-into-trust application for 170 acres in Mashpee and 140 acres in Taunton.
Under terms of the IGA, the tribe will provide the city with an up-front mitigation payment of $33 million, and a minimum annual payment of approximately $13 million. The tribe has also agreed to share 2.05 percent of slot revenues, but not less than $8 million, per year with the city.
The city council vote was initially scheduled to occur on Tuesday evening, but was postponed at the last minute due to a potential violation of the state open meeting law. City Council President Ryan Colton excused himself from the vote due to a potential conflict of interest, as did Councilor Alan Medeiros .
Councilor David Pottier cast the only “no” vote, after expressing concern earlier in the evening over the lack of market projections for gaming in the region, as well as that a potential slot parlor in nearby Raynham or Plainville could affect the city’s share of slot machine revenue.
The approval represented a significant milestone in a schedule of state-mandated deadlines the tribe must meet in the next 60 days.
“Tonight’s vote was a major step in the right direction. I never would have supported this project if it was not a good deal for the city. It is important that residents know where the council stands before they head to the polls,” Taunton Mayor Thomas J. Hoye Jr. said.
DEAL PROPOSED IN TAX DISPUTE
By GEOFF SPILLANE
It appears likely that an appeal to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe will be settled before the case is even heard by the quasi-judicial agency.
The tribe, currently in the final stretch of meeting state-mandated deadlines to obtain a gaming license to operate a proposed $500 million destination resort casino in Taunton, is seeking tax-exempt status for its real estate holdings in Mashpee.
According to a document obtained by the Enterprise, the Mashpee Board of Assessors on Wednesday evening voted during executive session to authorize town counsel to negotiate and finalize a settlement with the tribe, hoping to avoid a potentially long and costly legal battle in Boston.
“On May 29, 2012, the Tribe received an offer of settlement from the Town of Mashpee Board of Assessors regarding the Tribe's pending Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB) real estate tax appeals on several parcels of Tribal real estate within Mashpee, Massachusetts. Yesterday, both the Board and Tribe passed resolutions authorizing the settlement terms. It is anticipated that the pending tax appeals will be withdrawn shortly once a settlement agreement is executed,”Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a prepared statement.
Data provided by Mashpee Tax Collector and Treasurer David Leary shows that the tribe currently owes $14,806.64 in taxes to the town for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012.
The properties are located on Great Neck Road South, Main Street, Meetinghouse Road, and Uncle Percy’s Road, and will be subject to additional taxes next month when the first bills for Fiscal Year 2013 are issued.
In an interview in March, Jason R. Streebel, Mashpee director of assessing, said that the tribe has been paying taxes on the land since 2010, when the board of assessors determined that being a sovereign nation was not enough to exempt it from local taxation. Mr. Streebel added that properties owned by the state or federal government, such as those placed into trust for the tribe, would be granted tax-exempt status.
Details Of Proposed Settlement
The document, authored by Town Counsel Patrick J. Costello was addressed to Marc C. Tilden of the tribe’s Colorado-based law firm. It proposes a universal settlement of all matters brought before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board, contingent upon the tribe withdrawing all appeals filed to the board without abatement.
The proposed settlement would provide tax-exempt status to the tribe’s 55-acre headquarters parcel on Great Neck Road South, the property housing the Wampanoag museum on Main Street, and a vacant parcel of land adjacent to the tribal headquarters that was formerly used as a cranberry bog.
The exempt status is based upon proof that there is evidence that the properties are used for “charitable” purposes.
The town will not, though, grant tax-exempt status for the tribe’s housing project parcel on Meetinghouse Road, the parsonage parcel on Main Street, and properties on Hollow Road and Uncle Percy’s Road.
The document cites an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal housing development on Martha’s Vineyard that has been subject to taxation, as well as an opinion that a parsonage is subject to taxation if it is not occupied by a church-affiliated clergy member.
Mark Harding, tribal council treasurer, was pleased with the outcome of the vote. “It has been a great day today. We are ready to move ahead and look forward to the referendum vote by the citizens of the great city of Taunton,” he said.
Two major hurdles remain for the tribe at the state and local level—a non-binding referendum vote scheduled for next Saturday in Taunton to gauge residents’ interest in hosting the casino and finalization and approval of a revenue-sharing and regulatory compact with Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick. The tribe must also demonstrate that it is making progress towards establishing a reservation on which to build the Indian casino. If the deadlines are not met by July 31, the region’s gaming license could be put out to commercial bid.
Hot Night In The Silver City
More than 50 people attended the city council meeting held in a stifling non air-conditioned cafeteria/gymnasium of a former elementary school that is used as Taunton’s temporary city hall.
Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell was not in attendance, but attorneys from the Chicago-based law firm hired by the city to negotiate the IGA were on hand to answer any questions proposed by the councilors.
For a time, it appeared as if the vote would be delayed yet again, to Tuesday evening, when Councilor Daniel Mansour-Barbour suggested that the council take the weekend to further review an economic impact study that was released earlier this week.
“People may think I am just buying time, but I don’t care what people think. I’m not a mathematician or a professor, and I need to do my homework. I have read the IGA like a priest reads the Bible, but I have a full-time job and would like additional time to read the economic reports,” Mr. Mansour-Barbour said.
Councilor Sherry Costa-Hanlon appeared to be on-board with the request to delay, but as the evening wore on, she changed her opinion, saying that time was running out before the election and that some residents may need a few days to view the council proceedings on local community access television.
BIA Moves Forward
During public hearings and open house events during the past month in Taunton, the subject of the tribe’s land into trust application with the BIA has been raised repeatedly, with some casino opponents even questioning whether it existed at all.
Many of those fears and concerns were put to rest yesterday.
Yesterday morning, the tribe issued a news release announcing that the BIA had issued a “Notice to State and Local Governments” regarding the pending application for an initial reservation in Mashpee and Taunton. According to the news release, the BIA notified the appropriate state and local governments of a 30- day opportunity to provide written comments on the acquisition’s impacts on regulatory jurisdiction, real property taxes, and special assessments.
“This is a significant step by the BIA since it demonstrates a move forward in taking the Tribe’s lands into federal trust, including for gaming purposes This initial reservation will allow our Tribe to fulfill our duty to provide services to our nation, including housing, health care, education, job training, cultural preservation and more in Mashpee. In addition, this is a significant step forward in our plans to create jobs and revenue for our Tribe, the City of Taunton, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through development of a destination resort casino in Taunton. This is a monumental day for our Tribe, and is due to the hard work and perseverance of Tribal leadership and Tribal citizens, especially our Elders, who have never wavered from the goal of achieving the true sovereignty and economic self- sufficiency that will come with this initial reservation,” Mr. Cromwell wrote in a prepared statement.
Later in the day, the BIA announced its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the proposed gaming facility in Taunton and government and housing developments in Mashpee.
To help determine the issues covered in the environmental impact statement, the BIA will conduct public hearings, or “scoping meetings” regarding the land into trust application in Taunton on June 20, and in Mashpee on June 21.
An environmental impact statement is part of a wide-ranging federal review that will cover subjects such as pollution, traffic, and economic changes created by the project, as well as recommended mitigation.
The BIA and the tribe began an environmental impact statement review of the Mashpee property back in 2007, under the tribe’s first reservation application that included land in Middleborough. That application ultimately stalled with the tribe’s first casino plans.
The Mashpee property includes the Old Indian Meetinghouse, the tribe’s government headquarters on Great Neck Road South, and land off Meetinghouse Road intended for housing for tribe members.
The federal notice is available here.