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Brasher says it’s not bound to land claim agreement

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BRASHER FALLS — Brasher officials say that because they were left out of discussions and are receiving inadequate compensation, they want no part of a memorandum of understanding signed by the state, St. Lawrence County and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe for the return of the tribe’s land.

Even so, St. Lawrence County officials say they’ve paid for the work behind the scenes to reach Wednesday’s agreement, and it is now out of the town’s hands. Approval of a land-claims agreement rests with the tribe, county, state legislature and Congress, county officials said.

Among the financial terms of the agreement are the release of $1.875 million in casino compact money to the county that remains in escrow and $937,000 each to the towns of Brasher and Massena. The county will receive an estimated $1.45 million in annual gaming proceeds, and each town will receive $725,000. The county will also receive a one-time signing bonus of $1.5 million from the tribe, a $2 million signing bonus from the state and $4 million in unrestricted funds annually to be shared with the towns and the St. Lawrence and Massena central school districts. The county, towns and school districts will also receive payments to hold them harmless for the loss of taxes on Massena and Brasher properties that are sold and become tribal lands.

In a resolution unanimously passed by the Town Council during a special meeting Wednesday afternoon, council members agreed that the town “is not bound to this agreement in which it had no say.” They view the agreement as a “taking” without just compensation.

The resolution also states that Town Supervisor M. James Dawson “conveyed the fact that Brasher needed to be directly involved in any negotiations regarding Brasher land.”

However, they said, “negotiations were done in secret without Brasher being a party to said settlement.”

Mr. Dawson said county lawmakers are improperly imposing their will on the town.

“They’re making an assumption of authority that I don’t believe they possess. They are not authorized to manage the affairs of the town of Brasher. That’s up to this town board. We were duly elected to do that,” Mr. Dawson said.

Among his questions was why St. Lawrence County was receiving $3.5 million up front as part of the agreement.

“I don’t understand how they can justify getting an up-front payment when they’re not giving up an acre of land. Now if they were talking about 3,000 acres of county-owned forest, it would be a different story,” Mr. Dawson said.

He said that during earlier negotiations in 2005, the town was set to receive “in excess of 65 percent of the monies coming to St. Lawrence County.”

Now, he said, “We’ve been treated like a second-class citizen here, and we have more than double the acreage here. St. Lawrence County is not giving up any acreage at all. It’s not going to affect the other 30 towns in St. Lawrence County.”

Mr. Dawson said that as an affected party, Brasher should have been part of the negotiations.

“I told Mr. Arquiett (Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena) repeatedly, ‘You can’t do this without the Brasher Town Board’s input.’ He said, ‘Oh yes I can. I represent Brasher, too.’ So they’ve been dictatorial in their attitude; they’ve been heavy-handed with it,” he said.

By approving their resolution Wednesday, he said, the town’s opposition is on record.

“Having said that, I don’t know what our recourse is except that we can just say we don’t agree with it. We disagree vehemently with it,” Mr. Dawson said.

But county officials say there has been input from the towns along the way.

“This agreement is an agreement between the county and the tribe and the state. There has been consultation with the towns,” said County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire, who lives in Brasher. “There have been lots of conversations with the towns as this process has been going on. It’s not like they don’t know what’s going on,”

County Legislature Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said that the county had taken on the fiscal responsibility of hiring of Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, which lobbies on the county’s behalf, and he said both towns declined to contribute.

“When this board of legislators took office, there was an issue with the tribal compact funds no longer flowing to the county,” Mr. Putney said. “We met with the appropriate parties — the state, tribe — and we also talked with our towns about what we could do to resume payments, at which point, after gathering information, we decided to retain legal counsel. The county has paid all the costs of all the legal services.”

Since hiring the firm, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the tribe signed a document to release half of the casino gaming compact funds, which Mr. Putney called “a very positive step forward,” and negotiations have been ongoing since.

Mr. Arquiett said, in terms of funding equity between Massena and Brasher over impacted land, it was handled fairly.

“We had conversations about the value of acreage. That’s a lot of the equation. When all is said and done, the fair and equitable way to go was an even split,” he said.

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