Porterville loses at Indian gaming table
City may have to give back $215,000 in grant funds
The city of Porterville might give back more than $215,000 in grant money it received in the last two years to mitigate the impacts of tribal gaming, and lose out on thousands more.
During a closed-door meeting last week, the Tulare County Indian Gaming Local Community Benefit Committee, charged with selecting grant recipients, voted to request the money back, Porterville City Council and committee member Cameron Hamilton announced during the council’s regular meeting Tuesday night.
The committee, a seven-member body made up of county, city and Tule River Tribe representatives, is responsible for the allocation and administration of funding provided by Senate Bill 621.
The bill was passed in 2004 and makes the money available to counties, cities and special districts affected by local tribal gaming from the Indian Gaming Special Distribution Fund.
Gaming tribes that operated 200 or more gaming devices on or before September 1999 contribute a variable portion of their net winnings into the fund. In Tulare County, the Tule River Tribe contributes winnings and must sponsor the grants and find the proposed grant projects have a valid relationship to the impacts associated with Eagle Mountain Casino.
A small portion of the funding is earmarked for the county’s administrative expenses, with the remaining divided 60 percent for nexus geographical proximity grants and 40 percent for discretionary grants.
Until last week, only the city and county qualified for the nexus grants while the city, county and special districts qualified for the discretionary grants.
“It all boils down to one thing; the nexus was not correct,” said Mike Ennis, Tulare County Supervisor and a member of the committee. “Porterville had been taking 60 percent and was supposed to get 40 percent. For the last three years, this was something we’d been talking about and we finally got (former state Sen. Michael) Rubio’s people to come down and look at it.”
According to the committee’s Feb. 21 meeting agenda, on October of last year, the committee directed staff to contact Rubio’s office to request that the senator contact the Office of Legislative Counsel for assistance on the interpretation of the Indian gaming bill. On Feb. 8, the committee staff received a letter responding to the committee’s inquiry.
“Based off of the response from OLC, staff believes that the county of Tulare is the only local government jurisdiction that qualifies for any of the 60 percent nexus proximity grants, and that the committee should award funds accordingly,” a staff report states.
The report goes on to say that staff believes the county meets three of the four nexus proximity criteria.
That criteria are: whether the local government jurisdiction borders the tribal lands on all sides; whether it partially borders tribal lands; whether it maintains a highway, road or other thoroughfare that is the predominant access route to a casino that is located within four miles; and whether all or a portion of it is located within four miles of a casino.
In an e-mail to The Recorder Thursday, committee staff member Jed Chernabaeff said the committee determined Porterville does not meet any of the criteria.
According to Ennis, the city had been receiving the funds because of its proximity to the Tule River Indian Tribe’s Porterville Airpark property, which it considered “tribal lands.”
“If the tribe ever builds a casino at the airport, then Porterville will qualify for the 60 percent,” Ennis said, noting that from now on, the city will only qualify for the discretionary grants and will have to vie for it’s share of the 40 percent with special districts and the county.
Chernabaeff said committee staff is in the process of drafting a letter requesting the money back from the city.
While Hamilton said it will be entirely up to the city whether it wants to give the money back or not, Ennis said he thinks it will.
“I think they will, because I don’t think they’re going to want to get into some legality over this thing and get sued — and it wont be us suing them, it will be the state,” he said.
Porterville Vice Mayor Pete McCracken said he differs.
“I don’t believe the city is under any obligation to return the money, because it was the decision of the committee to give the city the money in the first place,” he said. “It’s like giving your niece a present and saying, ‘Give it back.’”
Since it’s inception, the committee has distributed roughly $3.5 million in funds, said Chernabaeff. According to Maria Bemis, Porterville finance director, over the last nine years the city of Porterville has received more than $1.1 million of that amount.
In the last two years, the nexus grants awarded to the city have gone toward things such as the development of the police department’s shooting range, the purchase of fire-training props and the salary of a public education officer for the fire department.
Contact Denise Madrid at 784-5000, Ext. 1047. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseMadrid_.