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DA: Reservation is big budget problem for county

November 2, 2012
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

MALONE - Native Americans on the St. Regis Mohawk reservation cost Franklin County money, but they don't contribute to the budget like the rest of taxpayers here.

That was the message several county officials gave the county board at a budget hearing Thursday at the Franklin County Courthouse.

District Attorney Derek Champagne estimated that between the departments he works with - including the jail, probation, the public defender's office and others - Native Americans cost the county around $1.8 million.

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Champagne said 19 percent of his cases - and about 30 percent of the time his department spends on cases - are related to Native Americans from the reservation.

Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said about one in seven of the people who go through the jail are from the reservation.

Champagne said that in a county that has high unemployment and poverty rates, it's difficult for the county to pick up that bill.

When the county got money from a compact with the casino on the reservation, people turned a blind eye to the fact that people on the reservation weren't paying taxes, Champagne said. But now Native American leaders are holding back the $3 million that would normally go to the county, so Champagne said he feels it's time people start talking about the issue.

"I really feel it needs to come out, because it needs to be addressed," Champagne said.

He said he's cut his budget as far as he can in recent years, as have other county departments.

"I really feel that a number of us have made cuts that have really hurt us," Champagne told the board.

He asked board members to think about it before struggling to get under the state-imposed 2 percent tax cap, when there's $1.8 million that's directly attributable to that particular problem.

Champagne said he doesn't necessarily think the tribe should have to pay property taxes or make up for the funding in some other way, but maybe the state or federal government should stand up and help the county out in this situation.

County Treasurer Bryon Varin said the total cost of the county providing services to Native Americans would end up higher than $1.8 million, since they use services through other county departments as well.

"It's far greater than $1.8 million," Varin said.

Board Chairman Gordon Crossman, D-Malone, said the board hasn't written off getting the casino compact funding, though it's not included in the budget since it's not a sure thing.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance said in a written statement this morning that Champagne's comments have racial overtones.

"Franklin County should be more concerned about the other 82 percent of their criminal caseload and a dollar amount should have been attached to that," LaFrance wrote. "If this comment had been made about an African-American community, think of the outcry. The Franklin County taxpayers should be equally concerned about the prosecution and probation of non-Natives and ask District Attorney Champaign, 'Where is the concern for the other millions of dollars used for the prosecution of non-Natives and other related expenses.' Why is he singling out the Mohawk Community?"



Champagne also asked that the board keep money in the budget for raises for non-union employees. That's a slice of the budget that has been cut out at the last minute for the past several years, and several people echoed Champagne's call to give those people raises next year.

Champagne noted that often employees will turn down promotions because they want to stay with the union, since they'll get more regular raises.

"This is not the way to run a county," Champagne said.


Budget work

At the beginning of the hearing, county Manager Thomas Leitz gave a 40-minute presentation on the $99.7 million spending plan. The tentative budget, filed Oct. 1, includes an 11.4 decrease in spending but a 14.6 percent decrease in revenue. That leads to a 5.57 percent increase in the tax levy, or the amount of the budget to be paid for through property taxes.

Earlier in the day, Leitz held a brief budget workshop in which he gave the board some ideas he has to get the tax levy increase under the state's 2 percent tax cap.

One idea is to use money from a few reserve accounts. Leitz said he's not recommending it yet, but it wouldn't make him as nervous as it would have last year to do that.

Legislator Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, advocated for increasing the county's estimates for sales tax revenue in 2013. He pushed for the same last year, and the county is on track for about $400,000 more in revenue than was budgeted for this year.



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