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Brasher says they’re not bound to memorandum of understanding between state, tribe and county


BRASHER FALLS - Brasher officials say that, because they were not part of the talks and don’t feel like they’re receiving fair compensation, they want out of the memorandum of understanding signed between the state, St. Lawrence County and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe for the return of lands to the tribe.

But St. Lawrence County officials say they’ve paid for the work behind the scenes to reach Wednesday’s agreement signing, and it’s out of the town’s hands now, with approval of a land claims agreement now resting with the tribe, county and state Legislatures, as well as Congress.

In a resolution unanimously passed by the Brasher Town Board during a special meeting Wednesday afternoon, they agreed that the town “is not bound to this agreement in which it had no say” and they view the agreement as “a ‘taking’ without just compensation.”

In the resolution, town officials say that the board has contended that 3,440 acres of land in Brasher was not available for settlement without proper compensation. The resolution also notes that Town Supervisor M. James Dawson “conveyed the fact that Brasher needed to be directly involved in any negotiations regarding Brasher land, since there is no land claim in Brasher.”

However, they said, “negotiations were done in secret without Brasher being a party to said settlement,” and county legislators “told Brasher what they would receive as compensation with no input from Brasher.” In their resolution, they said the county “kept the lion’s share of monies for themselves” while losing nothing in the process, compared to the 3,440 acres of land Brasher would lose.

“We’re being dictated to by the county. They assume there’s a pecking order here and they’re higher than we are, so that we just don’t count. We’re just here being told what to do at their will. 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.

He and Deputy Supervisor William D. Demo, in reading one of the documents associated with Wednesday’s memorandum of agreement, noted that the agreement must be approved by local, county, state and federal officials.

“That’s the way I read it,” Mr. Demo said.

“That may just be a misnomer,” Mr. Dawson said. “We’ve had no way or yes or no on this thing. We were told we were going to get it. I just think that’s taking without just compensation.”

He said that, between himself and Mr. Demo, they have 96 years of elected experience in the town.

“That doesn’t make us special, but it means we’ve got a lot of experience and people have elected us over and over. The people trust us to run their business. It’s not about us; it’s not about personalities. It’s about a just and equitable settlement. It’s something that’s been going on for years and years and years and we have not been justly dealt with. No matter what the county legislators say, we have not been justly dealt with,” he said.

“This settlement has been really on the backs of the people of the town of Brasher. They have been unjustly treated, not us,” Mr. Dawson said.

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

“It looks like the county is going to receive $3 1/2 million and it’s an up front payment. Why should they get $3 1/2 million up front? For what? What are they giving up? Nothing. 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. They’re giving up nothing. They’re not losing one thing,” Mr. Dawson said.

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

“So we said in good faith and if we’re properly compensated, we would go along with this. We felt that we were being justly compensated for being a volunteer,” Mr. Dawson said.

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.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday in Albany, the towns of Massena would receive annual payments of $750,500 from the county. The town of Brasher’s 2014 budget has a property tax levy of approximately $400,000 for its highway and general funds, according to town officials.

The tribe can attempt to acquire approximately 3,440 acres of land in Brasher and approximately 1,360 acres of land in Massena.

“It’s my opinion that we were badly compensated. We have more than twice the acreage of Massena. There’s a claim in Massena and there’s no claim in Brasher as we know, and yet we get the same amount of money,” Mr. Dawson said.

“I understand that Massena is going to get some other concessions and good for them. I’m happy for them. But getting the trails open in the Brasher State Forest is not a monetary compensation as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

“I don’t think we object to settling or to being a party in the settlement if we’re justly compensated. Just compensation is not receiving the same amount as Massena,” Councilman Wilfred Record said.

Mr. Dawson said, as an impacted party, they should have been part of the negotiations.

“They (county officials) assume they’re just going to tell us what to do. That’s what the assumption’s been all along, and 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. They’ve told us what we’re going to get with no input from us,” he said.

By approving their resolution on Wednesday, he said the Brasher Town Board is on the record with their opposition to the memorandum of understanding.

“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. “They decided to cut us out because they didn’t want us in there stirring things up and getting too much money that they wanted for themselves. How did they justify it? To themselves maybe they can. They did on the backs of people in Brasher. It is a very sad day.

“I guess the part that bothers me the most with this whole issue is just the way it was handled. The monies might not have been much different, but the way it was thrust upon us. You don’t just discount the towns. You take the 32 towns and 13 villages and the city of Ogdensburg and you haven’t got a county. They somehow have an inflated view of their position. All I want is what is fair and just for the people this board represents,” he 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. 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 Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire, a resident of the town of Brasher, said.

“Most certainly both towns were represented at the original round of negotiations. They were invited to the second round of negotiations. They chose not to attend,” Mr. Arquiett said.

He said that was followed by a tour “around the areas of contention” attended by both boards.

“That was followed by conversations by myself with board boards,” Mr. Arquiett said.

Their “strategy moving forward,” however, was for the county to move forward.

“Because of the level of intensity and ground rules in essence were not honored, we moved forward with the county. That was followed very shortly by the direct deal that involves both towns, both school districts and St. Lawrence County. It’s a great thing for the stakeholders,” he said.

County Legislative Chairman Jonathan Putney, D-Waddington, said that financially the county had taken on the fiscal responsibility of hiring of Wladis Firm, Syracuse, which lobbies on the county’s behalf, and he said both the towns of Massena and Brasher 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. 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,” he said.

“The county has had expenses involved in negotiations such as retaining a law firm. When we asked the towns to share in the cost of the legal costs, they declined to do so. That may be a point of contention for them,” Mr. Putney said.

Since hiring the firm, the governor 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 on-going since then.

“We’ve been negotiating in good faith. Unfortunately the county has borne all the cost of getting the law firm,” he said.

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.

The towns will benefit financially from the work done at the county level, Mr. Arquiett said.

“The important piece is, the tribal compact is contingent on the continuation of this negotiation. In essence both towns will continue to receive (funding) as a result of this successful negotiation,” he said.

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