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Airway Heights, Kalispel Tribe in public quarrel over payment for emergency services at casino

Dec. 7, 2022 Updated Wed., Dec. 7, 2022 at 3:57 p.m.

The Airway Heights City Council passed a resolution Monday calling for a reduction of emergency services to Northern Quest Resort & Casino, seen here in a July 2020 photograph, citing a lack of agreed-to payments by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, which owns the casino. The tribe disputes that it owes money and accused the city of making public threats to extract those disputed payments.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Airway Heights City Council passed a resolution Monday calling for a reduction of emergency services to Northern Quest Resort & Casino, seen here in a July 2020 photograph, citing a lack of agreed-to payments by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, which owns the casino. The tribe disputes that it owes money and accused the city of making public threats to extract those disputed payments.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

A dispute over payment for emergency services provided on land belonging to the Kalispel Tribe of Indians in Airway Heights, including Northern Quest Resort & Casino, has led to a public spat between the two governments.

The Airway Heights City Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution reducing emergency services to the casino and developments owned by the Kalispel Tribe effective at the end of the month, citing $1.5 million in missing payments over the past three years that have effectively subsidized tribal operations. On Tuesday, the tribe took issue with Airway Heights’ position, saying they’ve provided $1.1 million over the past five years in payments mandated by a state gaming compact that permitted operations of the Northern Quest Resort & Casino, which opened in 2000, and accusing Airway Heights of failing to provide “services the Kalispel Tribe has contracted and paid for.”

Julie Holland, director of public relations and communications for the Kalispel Tribe, said in an email she could not discuss the extent of the agreements that the tribe believes Airway Heights is not providing.

“The failure of the City to provide contracted services refers to multiple agreements we are not at liberty to discuss in detail,” Holland wrote. “We are currently abiding by confidentiality provisions and are unable to comment additionally at this time.”

An agreement signed in 2006, when the tribe designated 250 acres of land for residential and commercial use on the West Plains, contemplated annual payments reaching nearly $400,000 this year to Airway Heights and Spokane County, to cover the costs of emergency services and street maintenance for the area, which includes the Copper Landing apartment complex and the Northern Quest RV park. Airway Heights says it has a memorandum of understanding with the tribe, dating back to 1996, in which the tribe is required to annually pay the city roughly $375,000 to “mitigate impacts of its gaming operations.”

The Kalispel Tribe’s statement said the sides were working toward an agreement until Airway Heights approved its resolution.

“Unfortunately, the City’s actions appear to be an attempt to circumvent this process, using public threats to extract disputed payments from the Tribe,” the statement, issued Tuesday, said.

Council members at Monday’s meeting noted that the properties served by emergency services, and owned by the Kalispel Tribe, do not pay directly into the city’s general fund in taxes to pay for fire, police and other services. City manager Albert Tripp said in an interview Tuesday that the loss of revenue is particularly challenging for the city as its population grows.

“We can’t continue on with our current public safety resources, that are continuing to be spread thin,” Tripp said.

In its statement, the tribe said it has ongoing relationships with other law enforcement agencies, including Spokane County, the Washington State Patrol and the FBI. The tribe is also served by a police force that employs more than 20 officers and has a 24-hour Emergency Medical Services team at the casino.

The tribe said it will work with the city of Spokane and Spokane County on providing fire and emergency medical services not just for the casino, but for the adjacent property that includes the apartment complex. They also noted that the tribe has “contributed significantly to the economic growth” of the city, employing 2,800 people and causing an economic impact of $404 million in 2019.

“This most recent action taken by the City of Airway Heights was not in the best interest of the citizens of Airway Heights – hundreds of which live in an area they are now refusing to respond to – but rather as an attempt to extort money from the tribe,” the statement reads.

Tripp said the signed agreements between the city, tribe and county clearly lay out the payments the tribe should have been providing the past three years. Tripp said the tribe had approached the city about renegotiating those agreements, but never provided “a firm proposal.” He noted that the tribe is free to contract with whomever it wants to provide emergency services beyond Dec. 31

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