SALAMANCA - School taxes are a big issue in most of the state. Despite a recently reported 30 percent downtick projected for residents of the Salamanca School District, one resident feels they may still be too high.
Presenting to the members of the board of education recently, Al Mendall, a district resident, said he is not alone in being fed up with the taxes that are being forced upon the base, mostly due to tax-exempt properties.
Mendall, armed with not just a problem, but a potential solution, outlined a way for the Salamanca City Central School District to tap into more federal resources to spread funding of the district throughout the nation, and not just the county and state.
"We are already getting a form of Federal Impact Aid, but there may be more there," Mendall said. "There are six different programs that fall under that umbrella."
Mendall and a group of concerned citizens were part of the force behind the district receiving the $1.6 million in Impact Aid that the district received in November, but the program that fell under was not the path the group was originally thinking, he said. The grant received was under the Basic Support Payment format that allows for areas where the students are federally connected through several criteria, including being Native American and living on federal property, including a reservation or Territory. Salamanca falls into that.
"We were looking more toward the Payments for Property program," Mendall said. "I think, if this is pursued, Salamanca can be one of the richest districts, probably in the state."
Mendall's intention in presenting the program was not so much to alleviate the taxes he and many others in Salamanca are paying, but more so to spread the burden and make it more equitable. In the Salamanca school district, just as it is for the city of Salamanca, when property is bought by a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, the property can be taken off the tax rolls under an exemption in compacts the Seneca Nation holds with state and federal governments.
Those compacts, according to Mendall, also outline the responsibility of the federal government to pay for the lost tax base. He said that a key definition of the Payments for Property is that the federal government has to have taken ownership of the land since 1938. On the face of it, that guideline is not met. However, Mendall said there maybe a loophole to be explored.
"In 1990, we had the situation with the lease," he reminded the members of the board. "As is the case with any contract situation with Native Americans, all contracts between Native nations and non-Natives has to be approved by Congress. They have to sign the agreement. Wouldn't that be a possible land acquisition?"
The 99-year lease the Seneca Nation held with the federal government was set to expire in February 1991, reverting land back to the Seneca Nation with no agreement on property. A congressional bill renewed the agreement for 40 years with an option to renew for another 40, for $60 million.
"We have a unique situation, here in Salamanca," he continued. "What we need is to lobby our lawmakers to take a look into the guidelines, maybe even create something specifically for Salamanca, to make our taxes more equitable."
Roughly 90 percent of the city of Salamanca is situated on the Allegany Territory of the Seneca Nation, the only non-Native administered municipality to be mostly on Native lands in the United States. The Allegany Territory, one of three recognized Seneca Nation lands in New York state, has the designation of the largest in the state, encompassing about 22,640 acres. The land is known as a territory and not a reservation because of the manner in which the Seneca Nation and federal governments found agreement. Unlike many other Native tribes, the Seneca, part of the Iroquois, were never defeated and conquered by non-native forces. The land they occupy is part of the ancestral tract, making it a territory. A reservation may not always be the land to which the tribe is native.