An old conflict between tribes and county governments heats up again

The feds set up some of the wasteful legal disputes. But it makes no sense in tight times to revert to the old script of conflict between tribal and local governments.

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Bannock County Court House in Idaho.

The feds set up some of the wasteful legal disputes. But it makes no sense in tight times to revert to the old script of conflict between tribal and local governments.

Idaho’s Bannock County is considering an ordinance that would create an “overlay” zoning district on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. The idea is that the county would “serve” non-Indians who live on the reservation, while the tribes would then be limited to zoning its own members.

This is a script from an old playbook. Basically, the county views the Shoshone-Bannock government as little more than a social club with authority over its own. The tribe will likely respond with litigation to enforce its ordinances — and the next decade will be defined by chaos and rules that no one understands until eventually a court rules for one side or the other.

This script is still around because when the United States government reverses its policies, it rarely removes historical weeds. So tribes and local governments both cite federal law to support their claim. In simple terms: The old policy, called termination, would have ended tribes as governmental units, but that idea was abandoned during the 1970s in favor of tribal self-determination. Yet the laws to implement termination — such as those that give jurisdiction to states — remain on the books. That sets up battles about which government does what.

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 duplication as the winning goal.

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, nationally more than two-thirds of their revenue. And 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 their mortgages).

And, 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.) And as county operating deficits increase, there is a growing tension about the balance between police and fire 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. There are also significant tribal financial contributions made to school districts 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.


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