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Counties fight Coeur d'Alene move to take land off tax rolls 4-19-07

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) - Two northern Idaho counties are objecting to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's plan to remove about 2,800 acres from tax rolls.

Kootenai County officials estimate its annual tax loss at $28,560, while Benewah County officials said it faces a $25,000 annual loss.

The U.S. Department of the Interior can hold Indian land in trust for tribes, a step state and local governments often fight because Indian lands are generally exempt from state law and taxes.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe is asking the federal government to put about 515 acres in Kootenai County and about 2,400 acres in Benewah County in trust, The Spokesman Review reported.

The land in Kootenai County adjoins the Cataldo Mission and the Circling Raven Golf Course, and the county argues it would be unfair to other taxpayers to take the land off the tax rolls.

In Benewah County, the tribe wants to use the land for wildlife conservation. Benewah County officials are objecting to about 2,290 acres of agricultural and timber lands being put into trust.

County officials there argue the land is not connected to the reservation, serves no tribal government functions, and the land and its owners use county services paid for with taxes.

The two counties wrote separate letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this month, with both county commissions calling the tribe “wealthy” and saying the motive behind the plan was to “avoid paying property taxes.”

Quanah Spencer, tribal spokesman, declined to comment to the newspaper. He did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press on Thursday.

State Sen. Mike Jorgenson, RHayden Lake, chairman of the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs, said the counties are making a mistake by objecting to the tribe's request because the tribe contributes significant money to the area's economy.

“That's tripping over dollars to pick up nickels and dimes,” Jorgenson said, adding the move will harm the relationship the counties have with the tribe.

But Kootenai County Commissioner Todd Tondee, also a Republican, said that he expects more requests, perhaps as many as 30, from the tribe to put more land into trust.

The tribe has been using casino money for years to buy back historic reservation lands, the newspaper reported. Tondee said he's concerned those lands could be taken off the tax rolls, a problem if the tribe plans to use the land for businesses that make a profit.

“We're trying to make it fair for all taxpayers,” he said.

Last year, both Kootenai and Benewah counties started taxing land owned by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe or tribe members that weren't in trust but were still tax exempt.

That resulted in about 30 properties being added to the Kootenai County tax rolls, said Kootenai County Assessor Mike McDowell.

Commissioners in both counties decided to collect taxes on Indian property based on a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court ruled property taxes could be applied to Indian owned land in Cass County, Minn., that was not in trust.

Idaho had deemed land owned by Indians exempt from property taxes before that decision.