David Burnett exits as chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis much like his tenure over the previous 12 years: In a way that continues to grow the fortunes of the tribe and transform it into a major employer and player in south Thurston County.
And last week’s news was the perfect example as the tribe announced a $40 million investment and expansion of the Lucky Eagle Casino and Hotel.
“The tribe is headed in a good direction,” said Burnett, 50, who decided not to run for another two-year term as chairman and largely stepped away from those duties in November.
He also added that the tribe and its tribal government is very stable.
The new chairman is Don Secena, 52, a full-blood Chehalis who was born in Centralia but grew up on the reservation, and might be best known for his salmon bakes, involving lots of alder smoke, salt and pepper.
But Secena isn’t new to tribal leadership: he was vice chairman for eight years alongside Burnett.
Secena acknowledged that he has some big shoes to fill and called the moment a “little scary,” but after taking two years off to address some health concerns, he ran unopposed to become the next chairman.
Burnett described Secena as a man of integrity, a man of the people and a man whose roots run deep in the community.
“He will do well,” Burnett said.
Former Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, who first met Burnett in 2009, had high praise for both men. The tribe thrived under Burnett’s leadership and Secena is the best possible successor, she said.
While Secena is set to guide the tribe and its new casino investment into the future, Burnett has become a business consultant in Olympia, opening Elann Partners, which aims to serve tribal interests throughout the state, he said.
“Elann” is Chinook “jargon,” Burnett said, which means to aid, assist or help.
TREASURER, THEN CHAIRMAN
After serving as executive director of the Squaxin Island Tribe, Burnett, who has a certified public accountant background, joined the Chehalis in 2000, eventually rising to chairman in 2002 from treasurer and chief financial officer.
Burnett reminded The Olympian in December that the tribe was once “technically bankrupt,” something he elaborated on for a 2011 story that looked at the region’s three biggest tribes, including the Chehalis.
In those days, before the Lucky Eagle Casino opened in 1995, the Chehalis largely were reliant on federal funds and one convenience store for economic development. The tribe had an operating budget that was about $638,000 in the red, Burnett said.
But that would soon change.
Lucky Eagle general manager John Setterstrom, who has worked for the tribe for 20 years, said that Burnett set out to diversify tribal investments, wanting to be known as more than just a gaming tribe.
“He didn’t want to put the tribe in one area, not only for the tribe but for the community at large,” Setterstrom said.
Since then, the casino and Eagles Landing Hotel have expanded; the tribe’s real estate footprint has grown, including within the tribe’s 4,800-acre reservation boundary; and Great Wolf Lodge was developed, the 400-room resort, water park and convention center that the tribe jointly operates with Great Wolf Resorts of Madison, Wisconsin.
The tribe also has acquired property on three corners of a major intersection at U.S. Highway 12 and Old Highway 99, the same intersection that everyone drives through to get to the lodge. The corner where a McDonald’s restaurant sits is not owned by the tribe.
Tribal membership has grown to about 850 from about 425 in 2000, and tribal enterprises employ more than 1,400 in the county, about 90 percent of whom are nontribal.
“He is going to be sorely missed by the community,” Setterstrom said about Burnett, but he also welcomed Secena, saying he “walks the walk in his leadership.”
GREAT WOLF LODGE
The lodge brought controversy to Burnett’s tenure in the form of property taxes, and whether the tribe should pay them, but that issue finally was put to rest in October.
But first, some background.
The county began assessing a property tax on the permanent improvements of Great Wolf Lodge in 2007. The lodge officially opened in 2008 and the tribe filed suit against the county the same year, saying they did not have to pay those taxes.
U.S. District Court ruled in the county’s favor, but the ruling was appealed by the tribe to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which overturned the lower court’s decision in August 2013.
But the case wasn’t over just yet.
Assessed values for the lodge buildings were removed from county tax rolls in December of the same year, but the state Department of Revenue issued an advisory with regard to the Ninth Circuit decision, saying the ruling did not apply to taxes on “business personal property” which is not permanently attached to land held in trust.
An example of unattached business personal property are all those things that can be removed from a permanent structure, such as the building that is home to Great Wolf Lodge, without damaging it. Those items could be hotel room furnishings, bedding, art work, computers or the phone system, Thurston County Assessor Steven Drew said.
The tribe received an invoice for back and current taxes on the assessed values of unattached business personal property, which it appealed to the Thurston County Board of Equalization, the county body that hears property tax appeals.
On Oct. 16, the board ruled that the lodge is exempt from taxes on unattached business personal property, which totaled $10.2 million in 2014, according to the Thurston County Assessor’s Office.
Still, Drew, who was not assessor when the lawsuit was first filed in 2008, has decided not to appeal the board ruling.
“Drawing out this dispute for another four to six years is an important factor since all of the taxing districts involved will be greatly impacted by uncertainty in setting their budgets until this matter is resolved,” he said in a statement. “This complex legal process has already gone for over six years and has cost the county tens of thousands of dollars.”
“With this matter finally resolved, it is my sincere hope, this fee-for-service dialogue between our county commissioners and the Chehalis tribal government will proceed immediately,” Drew said.
A fee-for-service arrangement between Thurston County and the tribe, if approved, would mean a mutually agreed upon payment that the tribe would make for county services the tribe uses, Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore said.
Such services could mean Medic One, accessing county roads, using the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office or maybe the county’s planning department, he said.
“I’m hoping we’re in a position to reinvigorate the fee-for-service conversation,” Moore said.
Although the tax issue has been settled, Burnett said the tribe and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife still are at odds over state-issued hunting licenses for tribal members.
The tribe wants to hunt with its own tribal-issued permits rather than pay or be fined for not having a state-issued license, he said.
Tribe spokesman Jeff Warnke added that the Chehalis want to hunt without a state-issue license on territory ceded to the tribe, some of which is owned by the tribe, some if it is privately held, some of it is on the reservation and some is off it.
“It really comes down to this: this is land that the Chehalis historically have used for hunting,” Warnke said.
Fish and Wildlife doesn’t see it that way and issued a statement through spokesman Craig Bartlett:
“In general, state hunting and fishing laws do not apply to tribal members hunting or fishing within their tribe’s reservation. But those laws — including state licensing requirements — do apply to tribal members when hunting or fishing in off-reservation areas where there is no off-reservation treaty,” he said. “To make it easier for members of the Chehalis Tribe to obtain a state hunting license, WDFW has allowed the Tribe to purchase all state hunting licenses for its individual members through a single transaction.”
Burnett countered that the tribe wants to be recognized as a co-manager of the hunting lands, issuing licenses and handling enforcement.
Still, Burnett is pleased with the tribe’s growth.
“The balance sheet of the tribe is very, very strong,” he said.