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Petaluma to get $100,000-plus annually from Rohnert Park casino

Published: Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:18 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:18 a.m.

An unexpected pot of cash for law enforcement agencies in four Sonoma County cities is at play in negotiations under way between the county and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria over how to offset the impacts of the casino the tribe is building next to Rohnert Park.

A minimum annual payment of $416,918 is to be divided among Santa Rosa, which is due $286,923 a year; Petaluma, $102,591; Cotati, $12,808; and Sebastopol, $14,596.

Though overshadowed by the millions of dollars at stake in mitigation payments to the county -- and those also designated for Rohnert Park -- the amount is still significant, officials say.

"For a department our size, it's not inconsequential at all," said Chief Jeff Weaver of the 13-officer Sebastopol Police Department. It could fund overtime, educational or enforcement efforts, or equipment purchases, he said.

In budget-strapped Petaluma, City Manager John Brown said, "You're basically talking about buying an officer, or the better part of an officer. That's great. If there aren't strings attached, then I'd be happy to receive it."

The news of the required payments came as a surprise to Brown, as it did to his counterparts in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Interim Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin laughed when told about the minimum yearly "crime impact mitigation" payment the city is to get.

"We knew nothing of it at City Hall," he said.

The payments are required by the 526-page Record of Decision document by which the federal National Indian Gaming Commission approved the casino project in 2010.

Buried deeply in that document, in the "Socioeconomic Conditions and Environmental Justice" section, the conditions are listed alongside others ordering the tribe to pay for gambling education and treatment programs, to train employees to recognize signs of domestic violence and locate ATMs out of sight of gambling tables.

The Graton Rancheria won its final state and federal approvals this year and began work in June on its 254-acre reservation south of Home Depot.

County-tribe negotiations started in July over how the tribe will address, financially and otherwise, the casino's impacts. Due to conclude Oct. 12, they will define millions of dollars in payments that the tribe, under conditions set by the state and federal governments, is to make to the county.

Those payments are projected to add up to at least $40 million in the casino's first seven years and are expected to rise after that.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane said that although the negotiations are not complete, the cities can be assured of their money.

"The Record of Decision clearly says that we will pay a minimum payment for public safety to the surrounding cities, those are requirements," she said.

"We still have to negotiate that every last dime of the off-reservation impacts is paid by the tribe," she said.

The county is to get at least $283,082 in crime-impact mitigation funds for use by the Sheriff's Office.

Still being discussed is how the payments will be made and what should happen if they are found to be inadequate, said Lori Norton, deputy county administrator and a member of the negotiating team.

"We have not yet reached agreement about how those funds are going to be distributed, through the county or directly by the tribe," she said.

Gauging the casino's impacts won't be possible until it has been open for a time, making it hard to judge the adequacy of the mitigation payments, said Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison.

"We would very much like to see if the county is able to construct an agreement that would provide for rechecking as the impacts become better known and understood, and then applied to this annual allocation," she said.

Norton would not discuss the ongoing talks but she said, "The tribe has fully agreed to mitigate all impacts. If these amounts are not fully sufficient, I would anticipate that there would be a mechanism to increase these payments to fully mitigate those impacts."

The tribe has a separate revenue-sharing agreement with Rohnert Park, reached in 2003, under which it is to pay about $200 million to the city over 20 years. The tribe has already given the city $2.95 million to support public safety services.

It halted those public safety payments to the city in 2010 under an opt-out clause in the contract, but is to resume them after the casino opens. That is expected to happen in 2013.

The other cities also likely would have to wait until after the casino opens to get their payments.

Casino opponents said the money, while welcome, would not sway their feelings.

"I'm sure the city would not turn it down, but it certainly would not change our or my overall position on the casino," said Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy. He authored a lawsuit that the Stop the Casino 101 group has filed in state court challenging Gov. Jerry Brown's approval of the project.

In Sebastopol, McLaughlin noted that an earlier City Council passed a resolution opposing the casino, which the tribe first proposed in 2003. But he said, "We wouldn't turn it down. Philosophically, we may be opposed to the casino, but if they cause us an impact and they have to mitigate it, they should."

In Cotati, City Manager Dianne Thompson said the city knew of the future payments but that "$12,800 annually is not sufficient to mitigate anticipated public safety impacts."

Still, she held out hope for more, saying the project approval "designates that amount as a minimum."

Tribal officials did not respond to requests for comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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