Catawba Indian funding plea axed over unpaid school tuition bill

Bill Harris is chief of the Catawba Indian Nation
Bill Harris is chief of the Catawba Indian Nation aburriss@heraldonline.com

The Catawba Indian Nation’s loss is holiday ice skaters’ gain.

Rock Hill will spend accommodations tax money on one less item next year after the City Council voted Monday to drop a request from the tribe because of its ongoing funding dispute with the Rock Hill school district.

Instead, the money an independent commission recommended for the Catawba Indian Nation will be spent on the city’s downtown holiday ice rink.

The council approved the change on a 5-2 vote after Councilman Kevin Sutton said the tribe shouldn’t receive any money from the city while it has an unpaid tuition bill with the Rock Hill school district totaling millions of dollars.

“I don't think it’s in dispute,” Sutton said. “The was a land claim settlement (with the tribe), and both sides agreed to it. They should not be holding their hand out to one government entity while they owe another government entity money.”

Councilwomen Sandra Oborokumo and Ann Williamson were the only two members to vote against the proposal. Oborokumo said the dispute with the school district wasn’t sufficient to single out the tribe, and other applicants didn’t receive the same scrutiny.

“If you looked at everybody on the list, would they come out squeaky clean?” Oborokumo said. “It doesn’t seem worth it to bring them down for just $1,500.”

Sutton agrees denying the tribe the accommodations money is a “symbolic” protest, and doesn’t know if it will ultimately help produce a settlement of the dispute, but still he thinks it’s an important message to send.

“I know how this county was held hostage to the land claim for years, and the millions of dollars the Catawba received from it,” he said. “Now to know it’s not being honored, that’s bothersome to me.”

The Catawba Indian Nation’s request faltered over a long-running dispute with the Rock Hill school district. In 1993, the tribe agreed to pay out-of-district tuition fees for Catawba schoolchildren since tribal property can’t be taxed to fund school operations. But the tribe has been unable to secure federal funds to support the tuition bill. It now owes the school district an estimated $2.7 million to $4 million.

A school district spokeswoman said Tuesday negotiations over the unpaid bill are ongoing.

In a statement Tuesday, Catawba Indian Chief Bill Harris expressed disappointment with the council’s decision.

“The monthly Super Saturday jackpot at Catawba Bingo brings in (hundreds) of visitors who eat, shop and sleep in Rock Hill,” Harris said. “We were hoping that we could attract even more people to the games, and therefore into Rock Hill, with the assistance of the accommodations tax funding.”

“The (Catawba Indian) Nation is currently working with the school district to address the school tax issue,” Harris said. “If the City Council had questions about the school tax, the Nation would have been happy to explain the situation to them.”

The tribe had requested money collected by Rock Hill’s accommodations tax that would be spent promoting the Catawba bingo hall on Cherry Road. The money would have gone toward billboards and brochures that would have been placed around the Carolinas.

Figures provided by the tribe showed the bingo hall accounted for 975 hotel room stays last year, said city parks director John Taylor.

The tribe initially requested $4,177 for the bingo hall promotional campaign, and the city’s tourism commission recommended that council approve $1,500 for the nation.

With the extra funding that would have gone to the tribe, Rock Hill’s Christmastime ice rink on East Black Street will receive $4,500 in accommodations tax money this holiday season.

In total, the city will spend $336,485 raised by the tax on restaurants and hotels on 17 different organizations or events involved with tourism.

Oborokumo points out that at the same meeting where council members stripped funding from the tribe, it honored the World Changers volunteer labor organization in part for its work improving low-income residences on the Catawba Indian Reservation.

“Why can’t we balance the positive with the negative?” she asked.

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062