Airway Heights city officials have refused a request by Spokane County to unwind a 2010 agreement that prohibits county officials from taking sides on the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino.
The unanimous vote came at a recent Airway Heights City Council meeting where County Commissioner Al French argued the 2010 agreement illegally keeps the current county commissioners from expressing an opinion on the proposed casino.
French said the Airway Heights decision opens the door to the county possibly filing a lawsuit that could halt the tribal casino application while the legality of the 2010 gag order is argued in the courts.
Spokane County and Airway Heights signed the two-party agreement in 2010, with Commissioner Todd Mielke opposing the deal. Commissioners Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager voted in favor of the gag rule. French later replaced Mager on the board, and Richard is leaving at the end of the year after deciding against seeking re-election this fall.
The agreement also included a payout formula that specifies how much money the Spokane Tribe would give to the governments in place of taxes if the casino opens.
The tribe would pay $600,000 in the first year of operation to Airway Heights, with 20 percent of that going to Spokane County. The payouts would increase over time and would be paid instead of property taxes to cover municipal services such as fire, public safety, sewer and water.
The tribe is seeking federal approval to build a casino and resort on 145 acres recently annexed by the city of Airway Heights, a proposal that has become increasingly contentious between those who view it as needed economic development and those who fear it may be seen by military planners as dangerous encroachment on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.
Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing and City Council members support the Spokane Tribe’s proposal, saying it will generate jobs and boost the economy. Tribal leaders say they need to build a casino on nonreservation land closer to a population center because its members are struggling to find good jobs and the declining economy has reduced the tribe’s social services.
The tribe needs approval from the Interior Department and from Washington’s governor to move forward. It is currently preparing a final environmental impact statement. No date has been set for when the Interior Department will make a decision on the casino application.
Some area officials, including the city of Spokane, are openly opposing the casino plan, saying the area has one casino already. The Kalispel Tribe built the Northern Quest Resort and Casino in 2000 a few miles from the Spokanes’ proposed site.
Other critics say the size and height of the Spokanes’ casino would create land-use impacts that might jeopardize the future of Fairchild Air Force Base, which accounts for more than 4,000 area jobs.
French and Mielke say it’s a critical issue that they and the county government should be able to discuss openly with the community, which is why they want the gag order lifted.
During the Airway Heights council meeting French was asked by Councilman Kevin Richey why the county wasn’t also offering to give up any revenue from the casino in exchange for the option of being able to voice public comment.
French told Richey, “If the neutrality issue is tied directly to the money, that makes it look as though the 2010 agreement was all about ‘money for silence.’
“But the real reason (for the revenue payment to the county) is as compensation for services. It’s meant to mitigate services the county will provide,” French said.
French said he would have been surprised if the Airway Heights council had voted to agree with his request.
French also did not say filing a lawsuit is certain to happen.
“We feel the county needs to look at our next possible steps,” French added.