SHAWNEE — Deeply disappointed by a sales tax dispute, leaders of one of Oklahoma's most powerful Indian tribes are considering separating from the city it calls home and forming a new town called FireLake.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett said he is ready to move forward with separation plans. He awaits the reaction of Shawnee city officials, who've threatened lawsuits.
“We have taken several steps toward becoming self-sufficient including many governmental functions like developing our own utilities, building and maintaining roads, purchasing and maintaining streetlights and stop lights, operating a police force and buying property within our tribal jurisdiction,” Barrett said.
Pottawatomie County Assessor Troyce King said the tribe owns roughly 1,000 acres of Indian trust land within Shawnee city limits. This is a small fraction of the city itself, which comprises 21,500 acres.
Forming the town is likely a long-term goal. De-annexation, the legal process of separating from the city, would require a petition filed with the city and an election.
Talk of a legal separation spread after Shawnee Mayor Wes Mainord sent a letter to tribal leaders on Feb. 3 demanding they pay the city 3 percent sales tax on qualifying retail purchases.
City leaders claim a “significant” decline in sales tax collection in recent years and say that basic services — including those provided to members of the tribes — are being harmed.
Barrett, who grew up in Shawnee and has spent most of his life living in the city, accused city officials of acting to “restrain the growth of our commerce” on a regular basis. He also denied that he'd seen any evidence that revenues for the city are down, let alone down “significantly.”
“They are waging an economic war by trying to defame us to the public,” Barrett said.
“They think this is a zero-sum game and believe that everything we get must be a loss for them. They want to paint the picture that we're not contributing citizens of this community and that isn't the case. Shawnee is a better place because we're here.”
The tribe appears to have done some of the groundwork for a possible separation.
It purchased and took over Rural Water District Number 3 nearly a decade ago. They own their own sewer system. The tribe's gaming enterprises, including the massive Grand Casino along Interstate 40, are among the most profitable and well-managed in Oklahoma.
“We'll work with our neighbors during this process and develop a plan that works in the mutual interest of those in the area who would join us in the action to de-annex,” Barrett said.
City officials say they just want the tribe and its leaders to be “good neighbors.”
The city claims that tribal businesses are not paying the city a 3 percent sales tax it uses to fund its operations. According to the letter by Mainord, shoppers who are not members of an Indian tribe should pay the 3 percent sales tax if they buy goods at tribal shops and stores within Shawnee's city limits.
Barrett said the treatment he receives from Shawnee officials confounds him because of all the good the tribe does for the city.
Just a few weeks ago, the tribe provided $100,000 to help the city pay for repairs to the municipal pool. Last year, Barrett said, the Potawatomis gave charitable groups and nonprofits based in Shawnee more than $1.7 million.
“We are good neighbors,” the chairman said.
Barrett said the letter, which was addressed to his tribe, the Kickapoo Nation, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and the Sac and Fox Nation, was written to his tribe, not the others.
“Other than gaming, their commerce is negligible,” he said of the other tribes' business activities. “That letter was to us. We're the only (tribe) in the area who has businesses other than gaming.”
For years, the relationship between the successful Indian tribe and the city it calls home has grown frayed, Barrett said.
Barrett denies that his tribe is cheating the city of Shawnee out of anything.
“We charge the same amount of tax as any other grocery store in Shawnee and our competitors all seem to be doing well,” Barrett said.
“Rather than sales tax, we provide many governmental services in this area. We pave roads, build water lines, and provide police protection. We paid more than $21.3 million in taxes in Oklahoma and made more than $1.7 million in contributions to the (Shawnee) community in 2012.”
The tribe also has a police force of two dozen officers.
“That's actually more police officers than the county has,” Barrett said. “Without our assistance ... and the assistance from the other tribes ... the county would not be able to do its law enforcement.”
Hard to pin down
Shawnee City Manager Brian McDougal said he could not say exactly how far the city's revenues have fallen due to the tribes' retail business activities.
“They've got a large grocery store and lots of retail enterprises that have popped up around the area,” McDougal said. “We're not seeing any sales tax from any of those businesses. Our city is struggling to pay for basic services.”
“I've only been here five years ... this has been going on since I got here.”