Can Tribes, Counties Get Along?

[imgbelt img=shosoneflag.gif]An Idaho county is trying to move on to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. We’ve seen this story before.


That script makes no sense in an era of government constriction. Smart governments will look for ways to leverage services instead of engaging in expensive litigation with the goal being duplication of services and authority.

The context here is that state and local governments are about to get hammered fiscally. (Actually it’s already happening, but the pain was offset by federal stimulus money.) Recently Fed Chair Ben Bernanke in his usual, careful language, said there was an immediate “fiscal drag coming from state and local governments from the withdrawal of previous federal stimulus ….”

Most counties get the bulk of their operating money from property taxes, which accounts nationally for more than two-thirds of their revenue. In its day, the property tax was a gravy train. Every year home and land prices went up — as did the local budgets. 

But that’s no longer the case. Counties report more people are delinquent on their property taxes (as well as mortgages). The National Association of Counties puts it this way: “Residential property tax collections are among the hardest hit of the county revenue streams.”

As property taxes shrink there will be increased political pressure to recalculate property taxes based on the current worth of homes and land. That is a slow process resulting in even less funding for counties.

But counties are already showing the financial strain. A survey last year by the National Association of Counties reported that 37 percent of counties laid off sheriff, police and fire personnel. (This year’s numbers should be out next month.) As county operating deficits increase there is a growing tension about the balance between police and fire protection versus social services.

In this environment, effective counties will see tribal governments (and their ability to deliver police, zoning, water quality and other services) as a way to leverage governmental services. Any jurisdictional conflicts can be worked out by agreement, essentially modern treaties written at the local level.

That is already occurring. The National Association of Counties — historically an adversary of tribal governments — touts on its web site: “Role-reversal: Indian tribes help other governments.” The story is about local government partnerships with tribes in Washington and Wisconsin. There are also significant tribal financial contributions made to school districts and to community colleges. 

Of course there is a long history of tense relations between tribes and county (and other local) governments and the current economic situation isn’t going to change that immediately. Some counties will cling to the old script and waste resources. But a growing number of local governments recognize the advantages of working with tribal governments because it serves constituents. It’s time to rewrite the old script and create partnerships that work for every citizen. It will make for a better neighborhood.

[imgcontainer] [img:trahantbanner.jpg]

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.