Now real talks can begin in Great Wolf saga

Thurston County’s futile, seven-year court battle to collect property taxes from Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound is finally over. Perhaps now the county and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation can now enter meaningful negotiations to compensate the county for the services it provides.

The county has lost millions of dollars spent on legal fees, and lost the opportunity to collect fee-for-service during the protracted period of this court fight.

County Assessor Steven Drew thankfully stopped the bleeding when he declined to appeal an Oct. 16 Board of Equalization ruling that unattached business personal property in Great Wolf Lodge was also exempt from property taxes. It was the last outstanding issue in this sorry saga.

The county began assessing property taxes on Great Wolf in 2007, based on an incorrect belief that it could tax the buildings located on the 43 acres of non-reservation land held in trust for the Chehalis tribe. The buildings are owned by a joint partnership between the tribe and Great Wolf Resorts, a Wisconsin-based company.

Since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Thurston County in 2013 — a decision that had statewide ramifications — the county has continued to assess taxes on the unattached business personal property inside the lodge, such as furniture, artwork and other fixtures. The Board of Equalization ruled that property is also exempt.

Drew’s decision not to appeal the BOE ruling at taxpayers’ expense opens the door for progress on a fee-for-service contract.

The tribe has never argued that Great Wolf Lodge didn’t benefit from county services, such as criminal justice, roads and emergency services in the event of floods or other disasters. As a sovereign government, the tribe only contended it was not subject to a tax levied by another government.

Had Thurston County negotiated an annual fee for county services, instead of pursuing a tax, it could have received millions of dollars of revenue over the years. It’s unlikely any agreement now would include retroactive compensation.

And no deal is likely in the near future for a couple of reasons. First, Great Wolf Lodge is in Commissioner Karen Valenzuela’s district, and she leaves office at the end of the year. Second, Chehalis tribe chairman David Burnett is also stepping down from his position at the end of 2014.

With new leaders in place for 2015, we hope the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis and the county can come to agreement quickly. Litigation has kept a deal in limbo, preventing the county from recovering the cost of the services it provided.

Thurston County, like other cities and counties across the state, has struggled financially. Receiving fees for service from Great Wolf will be no financial panacea. But the revenue will help, and the county can put another conflict to rest.