Ruling broadens property tax breaks on tribal land

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - Wal-Mart, Home Depot and others that own buildings on tribal land will receive property tax refunds from Snohomish County as a result of a federal appeals court decision.

The retailers and the outlet mall at the Tulalip Tribes' Quil Ceda Village plus about 1,200 homeowners in the Marysville area will receive a total of about $5 million, The Daily Herald reported Sunday .

The refunds are a result of the decision last year involving the Great Wolf Lodge water park resort in Thurston County. The resort is on federal land held in trust for the Chehalis Tribe, and the courts ruled it should be exempt from property taxes - just like land and property owned by Indians.

Assessors across Washington are deciding how to comply. In Snohomish County, the exemption removes $106 million from this year's property tax rolls. Property owners who aren't exempt from the ruling will be left with a larger share of the future tax burden for schools, fire departments and other taxing districts.

"That will be a shift," said County Assessor Cindy Portmann.

Tulalip tribal leaders view the court's decision as a long-overdue correction to an injustice.

It's "a great victory for Indian Country for the federal government to finally recognize its obligations under the treaties they established with Indian nations giving us the right to exist as sovereign nations," said Les Parks, vice chairman of the tribe board of directors.

A 1955 federal law established that sovereign Indian nations are exempt from paying local or state taxes on federal lands held in trust for tribes. As a result, the land itself was exempt from county property taxes. Buildings and other improvements on that land also were considered exempt, if owned by Indians.

Last year's federal court decision made property taxation uniform on the trust lands, regardless of who owns buildings.

"The buildings were taxable, but now they are exempt," Portmann said.

The Tulalip Tribes want to work with affected taxing districts to help manage any negative impacts, Parks said.

"We're all partners in the same community," he said. "We'll fully research what the impacts are going to be and minimize those impacts."

The tribal government hopes to set up its own assessor's office to start collecting property taxes for government services, Parks said.