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Shakopee tribe offers a peek into its financial might

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • January 10, 2012 - 2:23 PM

The casino-owning Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is pouring more than $80 million a year into the economy of Scott County in wages and purchases of goods and services.

And from time to time -- whenever it opts to expand its holdings -- it makes some neighboring farmer very wealthy indeed.

That's part of the pitch the tribe is making as it seeks to move still more of the land it owns into federal trust status, removing it from the tax rolls.

"A lot of people think we are just given" the thousands of acres the tribe has bought, tribal administrator Bill Rudnicki told the Shakopee City Council last week.

Not so, he added: "There are a lot of rich farmers out there."

The tribe's request is drawing a mix of responses, but one seemingly universal desire: to know more, sooner, about its longer-range plans.

The tribe's latest moves come at a time when the county's political deck has been significantly reshuffled, with both close allies and longtime critics leaving office and newcomers arriving.

All sides seem to agree that it may be a moment to hit the reset button and try to play better with others after decades of turmoil.

The tribe has welcomed Shakopee's new mayor, Brad Tabke, who campaigned in part on healing old wounds.

But Tabke's counterpart in Prior Lake, traditionally a much closer partner with the tribe, acknowledged to colleagues last week that things are not going quite as well for him -- even though he's tried.

"We haven't had the elected-to-elected relationship [with tribal leaders] for about a year and a half or close to that," said Mayor Mike Myser, who took office in 2010. "On our side we have reached out on several occasions to improve that. We are very open and interested in a working relationship and have on a number of occasions extended a hand."

Despite the differences, both cities are talking -- as is Scott County -- about finding a new foundation for the partnership.

"I don't know that in the end we can stop the trust applications," said Shakopee Council Member Steve Clay. "Rather than keep arguing and throwing toys in the sandbox, we need to have a meaningful discussion about forming a joint commission," including the county and cities, that looks at each side's plans and whether either could trip the other up.

"Let's have that group meet at least monthly, and we would agree not to fight these battles each time they come up."

In Prior Lake, Council Member Vanessa Soukup spoke in similar terms.

"We need to concentrate on this more," she said. "We need to open a dialogue: perhaps a joint task force or some multi-jurisdictional group where everyone works together and has a platform to voice their agendas. An open, free kind of space."

Both cities needed to decide whether to express formal concern to the federal government about the applications. Without precisely voting against it, a slim majority of the Prior Lake council decided it won't send a letter. Shakopee will make the same call soon, after it meets with the tribe to discuss the issues.

The strongest expression of concern came from Shakopee Council Member Matt Lehman, who said the tribe is buying up land and pulling it off the tax rolls when taxpayers are covering the bills for things like roads serving those areas.

"Every time we put a project on the map," he said, "the tax revenue seems to go away."

The tribe's Rudnicki responded that the tribe has poured millions into local roadway projects, among many others.

The latest fee-to-trust applications involve a relatively small amount of acres in the two cities -- only about 150 acres out of the thousands the tribe owns. But there's a sense that more applications are coming, and that even small parcels can be key if they are located along major arteries.

The tribe's formal accounting of aid it has provided to local governments over the years adds up to more than $18 million -- much of it for road improvements, though the tribe concedes that most often it's in ways that aid its own business enterprises.

The tribe also lists "vendor payments" for goods and services to providers inside Scott County as rising from $5.3 million in 2002 to a peak of nearly $18 million in 2008, then slipping back to just under $10 million by 2010. The peak seems to have coincided with major building expansion.

Wages to Scott County residents, it adds, have soared from $51 million in 2002 to a shade over $70 million by 2009. It doesn't provide a more recent number, but the total took a significant jump late last decade as the tribe added capacity, both in the casino itself and in other enterprises.

The tribe is also a major Upper Midwest philanthropist, though those numbers have plateaued in recent years after some huge leaps, perhaps because the economy has affected its revenues.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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