Skagit County officials are reviewing a federal appeals court case that may allow the county to once again tax residents of the Shelter Bay Community on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation.
The county lost taxing authority of Shelter Bay residents in 2014 when a federal court ruled in what has become known as the Great Wolf Lodge Decision that tribes — and not counties — are allowed to collect taxes on buildings owned by non-tribal members that are on tribal land.
But in Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Riverside County, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a 2017 federal district court ruling that gives local governments the authority to collect such taxes.
“It appears to me the law of the land has been clarified, and local government has the authority to tax this land,” said Will Honea, senior deputy prosecuting attorney with the county.
Stephen Lecuyer, director of the Office of the Tribal Attorney for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, interprets the circuit court’s ruling more narrowly.
“The Great Wolf Lodge Decision is correct and is good law today,” he said. “There is nothing in the Agua Caliente decision that calls it into question.”
The Great Wolf Lodge Decision took about 960 properties off the county’s tax rolls, and forced taxing districts such as the La Conner School District and Skagit County Fire District 13 to increase taxes on those outside Shelter Bay to make up for the loss in tax dollars.
A memo states the Agua Caliente decision was filed by the circuit court on Jan. 28, but Honea said the county only recently started discussing the implications internally.
“We’re just kind of wrapping our arms around this now,” he said.
Lecuyer said the Agua Caliente case has no bearing on the Great Wolf Lodge Decision because it was an attempt by the tribe to re-litigate a similar case from 1971 and that both cases dealt with a unique dispute between one tribe and one county.
He said when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the Great Wolf Lodge case it considered the 1971 Agua Caliente ruling and similar cases but determined they didn’t apply.
Honea said taxing districts such as the county, school district and fire district are required to provide services for residents of Shelter Bay, but in the years since the Great Wolf Lodge Decision aren’t allowed to collect taxes from those residents to pay for those services.
That’s something that doesn’t make sense, he said.
“Whoever is providing the services should be collecting the tax for that service,” he said.
Honea said the parties in Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Riverside County had 60 days from the circuit court ruling to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but neither did so.
Roy Horn, chief of Fire District 13, said his district had to shift $300,000 to $400,000 of tax burden to other residents in the district when it could no longer collect taxes on those in Shelter Bay.
He said he has a lot of respect for the Swinomish tribe, and appreciates its help funding improvements to the district such as the $100,000 it gave the district to help purchase a new fire engine.
His issue, he said, is that taxes had to be increased on other residents to make up for this loss created by the Great Wolf Lodge Decision.
“They didn’t have a voice in the matter,” Horn said.