Despite Its Wealth, the Tribe Continues to Get Lots of Federal Help

Sally Kestin, Peter Franceschina and John Maines, South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), November 29, 2007

Federal grants continue to subsidize the Seminole Tribe of Florida, despite a gambling empire that brings in more than $1 billion a year.

Even as tribal affluence increased, the Seminoles have received government grants for health care, education, law enforcement, housing and more, sometimes claiming limited funds and budget constraints, records show.

The Seminoles are not subject to property taxes on reservation lands, but like all U.S. citizens, they pay federal income taxes. As a sovereign nation, they are entitled to grants like any other government.

In a five-year period ending in 2005, the tribe took in more than $3.2 billion in revenues and collected $80 million in government aid, according to the tribe’s annual audits.

This year, when the tribe completed a $965 million deal to buy the Hard Rock International chain of hotels and cafes, the Seminoles sought grants, including almost $200,000 for the establishment of tribal courts.

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In public appearances, tribal leaders have touted the Seminoles’ self-sufficiency and said they are no longer reliant on taxpayers for support.

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Most tribes receive grants based on long-standing policies and treaties with the federal government, which is committed to provide money for needs such as health care and education.

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Records show the Seminoles received grants for such things as computers, water meters and low-income housing.

In 2005, when the Seminole Police Department reported a surge in calls because of the crowds drawn to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, the tribe turned to the U.S. Department of Justice for help. The agency responded with a $330,902 grant for two new officers, 112 laptops and other computer equipment.

In 2006, another Justice Department grant helped pay for a $39,000 airboat for the Seminole police. The tribe cited police “budget restraints” in its grant application.

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The Navajo Nation, a tribe without casinos where half the members lived below the poverty line, spent an average of $2,097 in grants per person. The Seminoles, whose gambling and business empire generated $482 million that year, spent $5,824 per person.

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The Seminoles created their own department in fiscal 2005 to oversee the multitude of government grants. As the tribe’s annual revenues surpassed $1 billion, government grants kept coming, helping to pay for health and nutrition programs, road work and a tribal wildlife program.

In 2000, when the tribe’s casinos brought in hundreds of millions, the Seminoles applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and received $20,000 to cover the salary of a recycling coordinator. The tribe cited “extremely limited funding.”

In 2006, the tribe’s Water Resources Management Department received $20,000 from the EPA to mark high-water levels on its reservations. “The tribe has been working unsuccessfully to identify resources to fund the development of this baseline data,” the May 12 application said.

That same month, the tribe applied to the Department of Justice and received $102,144 for the airboat and four unmarked police vehicles, plus radios and laptops. The addition of four child- and elder-abuse investigators was “causing a strain on the police budget,” the tribe said in its application.

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The Seminoles cited the success of their casinos as the basis of a May 2005 application to the Justice Department for funds to hire 10 new police officers.

The tribe’s police department was “experiencing a tremendous growth in calls for service because of people frequently [sic] hotels, night clubs and casinos on the Tampa and Hollywood reservations.” The attractions were so popular, drawing an average of 65,000 visitors each weekend day to Hollywood and 35,000 to Tampa, that Seminole police had to contend with traffic gridlock, the application said.

The tribe sought money for the new officers’ salaries, uniforms, computers, patrol cars, background checks and Florida statute books. Because of federal budget limitations, the Justice Department awarded the tribe less than half of the funding requested.

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