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Snohomish County Turns To Tribes For Bailout

Hansi Lo Wang

Like many counties in Washington, Snohomish County is in tough financial straits. County Prosecutor Mark Roe says the budget crisis has meant cutting some of his staff.

Roe: "There's two ways you can approach a budget crisis when you're working in, I guess, county government or a prosecutor's office; you can whine about it, moan and complain, or you can try and do something about it."

His latest solution? Asking for help from some nearby Native American tribes. KUOW's Hansi Lo Wang has more.


Prosecutor Mark Roe is sitting in his Everett office, and he's holding a photocopy of a check.

Roe: "$86,864."

It's a donation from the Stillaguamish Tribe, and it's just enough to save a deputy prosecutor's job for one year.

Roe: "I kept a copy of that check, because I don't know about you, but I never held a check that big. When you reach across the fence because you need a cup of sugar, that's a pretty big cup of sugar from a pretty good neighbor."

Roe says his office has asked Native American tribes for money in the past. But this time he had a very specific request.

Roe: "It's the first time I've gone out to ask them to fund a deputy prosecutor position and really have nothing to offer in return. All I could say was, You know, we're in trouble."

Roe's had to lay off four of his 12 deputy prosecutors in the district court because of recent budget cuts. He says the money from the Stillaguamish Tribe saved him from laying off yet another. The tribe can afford to give the money because business is good.

Commercial: "Angel of the Winds, the world's friendliest casino."

Sound: (casino gaming machines)

Angel of the Winds is the Stillaguamish Tribe's only casino. It's in the woods near Arlington, just a few minutes off of I–5. And in the middle of the afternoon, the casino floor looks pretty full.

Shawn Yanity: "My name is Shawn Yanity, chairman of Stillaguamish Tribe."

Yanity is proud of the casino's success. It's enabled his tribe to become a bigger player in the community. He says after Prosecutor Mark Roe came to tribal council asking for money, writing a check was an easy decision.

Yanity: "Our council was very supportive."

Wang: "Immediately?"

Yanity: "Yeah [laughs]. I think we thought about it for that day, turned around and let him know we're interested in helping out."

The Stillaguamish have their own tribal court system. It's separate from Snohomish County's. But Yanity says it's still important for the tribe to support county services.

Yanity: "The fire departments, prosecutor's office, law enforcement, you know, and our schools are such a vital part of the infrastructure to our communities that if you can enhance, enhance those programs, it's better for the community."

Melvin Sheldon: "We ourselves needed help throughout the years."

That's Melvin Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip tribes. They were also asked for a donation by the Snohomish County prosecutor. The Tulalips own one of Washington's biggest casinos at the Quil Ceda Village complex along I–5. Sheldon says, before that was built, the tribes depended on grants from the US government.

Sheldon: "Today, though, we're in a little bit different position. We're able to help out other communities."

For example, the Tulalips recently gave close to $1.3 million to the Marysville School District, after they heard about proposed cuts to education in the state budget. But the Stillaguamish Tribe's donation is different; that money is going to fund a law enforcement position in prosecutor Mark Roe's office.

Wang: "Could they get favorable treatment if they were to end up in one of your cases?"

Roe: "Oh, if people weren't ethical and stupid they might. But we don't have unethical and stupid people here. I make it real clear when I talk to them, this doesn't buy you anything, and they know me well enough to know that I mean that."

Roe says in these tight economic times, he has to explore nontraditional sources to help fund county government. Around the country, tribes with casino revenue have often stepped up to support their neighbors.

Joseph Kalt co–directs the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. He says this is a relatively new trend.

Kalt: "Prior really until the 1990s, tribes had no money. They had no wherewithal to engage in supporting, you know, the building of a library wing in the county's library, or anything like that."

And today, most tribes still barely have enough resources to support their own members. Kalt says the tribes that are rolling in casino dough are in the minority.

Kalt: "You have to recognize that for lots of tribes who aren't located next to Seattle, Washington, but are located out in the middle of nowhere, if they have a casino it's a little tiny operation with a very small cash flow."

In Washington, tribal casinos have to donate a small percentage of their profits every year to local government, law enforcement and nonprofit agencies. Some tribes, like the Stillaguamish and the Tulalips, decide to give away more than that. And Kalt says that's partly a PR move.

Kalt: "Tribes quite reasonably are sensitive to the fact that the general American public just doesn't understand what tribal governments are all about."

In Snohomish County, Shawn Yanity says the Stillaguamish are getting ready to announce another donation: $100,000 for the local fire department to build a new emergency training facility. So, I had to ask —

Wang: "If Mark Roe or the attorney's office were to come to you again next year and say, You know, times are bad, we might lose another position again, would you consider it again?"

Yanity: "I don't know. We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

But, Yanity says, it's definitely something his tribe is willing to discuss.

For KUOW News, I'm Hansi Lo Wang.

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