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Commissioners ready to drop pact with Spokane Tribe over proposed casino

Fri., Jan. 25, 2013

Spokane County commissioners today are likely to terminate a 2010 agreement that prevented them from taking a stance on a proposed second tribal casino in Airway Heights.

The action follows a vote this week by Airway Heights officials to undo the agreement, which created a formula of payments to the city and the county instead of taxes if the Spokane Tribe is able to build a casino.

County Commissioner Al French said the change by Airway Heights council members came after Spokane County three weeks ago said it would file a lawsuit, arguing the 2010 agreement was invalid.

Airway Heights city officials sent out a news release Thursday announcing the change, but didn’t refer to possible legal action.

Airway Heights City Manager Albert Tripp said in an interview that the change resulted from both sides continuing to discuss the 2010 agreement. He added in later comments that the change followed the decision by the county to agree to forgo any payments. Tripp said the county previously resisted that step, wanting only to regain the right to comment but continue to be eligible for payments.

Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing said in the release, “The city of Airway Heights believes in open government and we encourage Spokane County to voice its concerns about the project proposed by the Spokane Tribe so that we as a community can gain a better understanding of their position.”

If commissioners rescind the earlier deal, the county is expected to quickly move forward with a statement opposing the casino, according to Commissioner Todd Mielke.

The Spokane Tribe is seeking federal approval to build a casino and resort on 145 acres annexed by the city of Airway Heights.

Proponents of the casino say it’s a valid way for an economically stressed tribe to generate jobs for its members and the community.

But opponents contend that the proposed site is too close to Fairchild Air Force Base. They argue that the casino could cause the Air Force to reduce the role of Fairchild in training air crews.

French said he felt reluctant to speak critically of the tribe’s proposal before today’s vote. But Mielke said he believed he’s not prevented from making comments on the casino.

“Instead of talking about the possibility of (the casino) creating thousands of jobs, Fairchild is directly responsible for about 5,000 jobs in the area,” said Mielke.

“It’s the bird in the hand that we have to protect,” he said, noting that the Air Force recently put Fairchild on the short list to house the next generation of tanker aircraft.

Both French and Mielke said the change of heart by Airway Heights council members was the result of a recent threat of a lawsuit.

In 2010 when the county signed the no-comment agreement with Airway Heights, Mielke voted against it. Two commissioners no longer on the board, Bonnie Mager and Mark Richard, voted for the agreement.

After French was elected to the commission, he asked the state attorney general to decide if the 2010 agreement was legal. He said that deal effectively prevented future commissioners from taking a public stance on an important issue.

The state opinion agreed with his position, French said.

That opinion became the county’s strongest point in swaying the Airway Heights council to terminate the no-comment deal, French added.

Both French and Mielke said terminating the deal also cancels the contract’s year-by-year payment schedule from revenue generated by the tribe if the casino is built.

The agreement said that the tribe would pay $600,000 to the city of Airway Heights in the casino’s first year, with Spokane County getting 20 percent of that.

French said the county wanted nothing to do with that payment formula. “It’s hush money, and we had to take it off the table completely,” he said.

Tripp said canceling the deal doesn’t change Airway Heights’ support for the Spokane Tribe’s proposal.

The city also backed the earlier successful effort by the Kalispel Tribe to build a casino in Airway Heights. The Kalispels have indicated they oppose the Spokanes’ proposal because it would harm their casino operation.

The casino proposal is still being reviewed by the Department of the Interior, which has not said when it will make a decision. If it’s approved by federal officials, the proposal needs the approval of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

French and Mielke say they believe the federal review process will allow the county at this point to register its views about the casino.

“We are the largest legislative body in the area, and we deserve the opportunity to represent citizens on this matter,” French said.

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