School is in session on the Ganienkeh Territory in Altona. But the schoolhouse may not belong to the Ganienkeh for much longer.
"They've been served papers for years that they've been in arrears on their taxes," said Joe Giroux, the Clinton County treasurer.
Clinton County has put the school and 10 other parcels of land up for sale. In all, 1,500 acres are on the auction block, including a farm, golf course, health center, homes and the Ganienkeh's burial grounds. The county says the Ganienkeh owe more than a quarter of a million dollars in back property taxes and penalties.
"As a trust it is not taxable," said Gare Smith of the law firm Foley Hoag.
The debate is over the fine print of the Turtle Island Trust. In 1977, the state and Ganienkeh Mohawks agreed to a land deal to create a trust with 600 acres of tax-free land. But since then, the Ganienkeh acquired an additional 1,500 acres; land the county says is taxable and the Ganienkeh are benefiting from financially. The Ganienkeh say the land should be tax-free like the 600 acres in the original trust.
"The state has told them, if you built the golf course and you continue to buy private land, it will be taxable. We're just enforcing," Giroux said.
This is not the first time the county has attempted to auction off the land for failure to pay taxes. A similar attempt was made in the 1980s.
"And the court system slapped them down and said you can't tax the trust, so there is a precedent there in their own court system that says this does not make sense and this is against the law," Smith said.
Despite the lawsuit, the county is moving ahead with the online auction which is planned for 9 a.m. Friday. But officials are not without fear. Tensions escalated in 1990 when a military helicopter was shot down. The sniper was never identified because the Ganienkeh blocked the road for 11 days. There's been no indication of violence or threats over this current tax dispute, but Giroux was still afraid have his face on TV.
"Ummm... it's for the safety of everybody," he said.
Reporter Matt Henson: Should anyone bid on this?
Gare Smith: I think it would be a bad idea. You wind up immediately in the lawsuit, you don't know where your money is going and you certainly aren't getting a deed to any property. The Ganienkeh are not about to move; this is their land.
In the meantime, families on the reservation are continuing life as usual, hoping the land remains theirs.
The New York Supreme Court still could halt the tax sale.
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