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2018-01-11 / Voices

Commissioner: Indian Land Money is Box of Chocolates

BY CAIRNS
CENTER FOR AMERICAN INDIAN RESEARCH AND NATIVE STUDIES

During the public meeting of the Bennett County Commissioners on January 3, 2018, the CAIRNS director asked each of the commissioners a question related to the commission’s ongoing Indian trust lands initiative. This initiative was launched over a decade ago. At its core is a demand that the federal government pay the county $1 million annually as “payment in lieu of taxes” for the tax-exempt Indian trust lands within the county’s borders.

The county does not own these lands, has no jurisdiction over these lands, and provides no services on these lands. Nevertheless, the county asserts that it is going bankrupt because of court fees and jail costs caused by American Indians who live on Indian trust lands.

Before questioning began, Commissioner Rolf Kraft proposed that instead of questioning the commissioners individually, as was done at the previous meeting, all questions should be answered by him, since he is the expert on this issue. The CAIRNS director replied that each commissioner has a vote, and that the residents of the county have a right to hear from each of them.

The questions to the commissioners were as follows:

Question to Commissioner Wayne Bond: “Last meeting you said that the Indian trust lands initiative should be continued until the county gets tax relief. Since the demand for federal funds in lieu of property taxes are based on American Indian trust lands, what strategies would you like to see implemented to ensure representation on the commission of the owners of these Indian trust lands?”

Commissioner Bond’s response: “We are all elected. Anyone can file and run for this office.”

Question to Commissioner Jason Fanning: “What would be a few specific indicators of potential bankruptcy by the county?”

Commissioner Fanning’s response: “When the county is in default.” He mentioned specifically the number of prisoners, the lawyer and legal costs, and that the line item budget for the jail is exceeded every year.

The commissioners could not explain how the county is on the brink of bankruptcy when the annual reports show that the county has not only never been in the red over this period, but actually had a surplus during three of the past four years.

Question to Commissioner Rocky Risse: “If the county were to receive the $1 million, how would you like to see it used?”

Commissioner Risse’s response: “I haven’t thought of that part yet.”

Question to Commissioner Rolf Kraft: “What was the process to arrive at the $1 million demand for payment in lieu of taxes for the Indian trust lands in the county?”

Commissioner Kraft’s response: “I took a number that Tom Nelson [deceased Bennett County Assessor] developed, looked at 911 maps, and added some more to get to a round number. It is a padded number because, as Forrest Gump said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.’”

The Bennett County Commissioners are demanding a million-dollar box of chocolates from the federal government. This amount of money is unjustifiable by any measure, and the commissioners know this and therefore appear content to happily accept whatever amount of money the county might eventually receive from this fanciful initiative.

The county incurs no expenses from Indian trust lands, has no representatives of these lands on the commission, and has presented no evidence that they have consulted with the owners of these lands. Yet it is demanding that the federal government pay the county $1 million for these lands.

Even if the magical amount received was only half of what is being demanded, that smaller box of chocolates would still be a very sweet deal for the county.

*The Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies is an Indiancontrolled nonprofit research and education center founded in 2004 and located in the Lacreek District of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

*The Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies is an Indian-controlled nonprofit research and education center founded in 2004 and located in the Lacreek District of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

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