County weighs in on casino TEIR

Report from sheriff and planning offices cites concerns about public safety, groundwater, process

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

County weighs in on casino TEIRConcerns about how a proposed casino will impact public safety and groundwater management were among the comments prepared by Kern County officials in response to the Draft Tribal Environment Impact Review of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe’s project.

The eight-page report, which includes comments from Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Director Lorelei Oviatt and Kern County Sheriff Lt. Michael DeLeon, was publicly filed in January after being sent to the tribe, but the packet began circulating through our community this week — reopening questions of whether the city’s Municipal Services Agreement with the tribe will offset costs associated with the opening of a casino.

Among those were Raymond Kelso, who noted that he logged some of the same questions and concerns that were not addressed in the TEIR.

“The sheriff’s concerns were based on experiences from neighboring county sheriff offices, and they conclude there will be significant negative impact due to increased crime and the cost to deal with it,” Kelso wrote to Mayor Peggy Breeden in an email copied to more than 100 other addresses.

“Again, neither the TEIR nor the MSA come close to addressing the actual cost risk to our city, the local police or the sheriff’s office, not to mention quality of life.”

He also asked why the county’s memo was not shared publicly by the city.

“Trust is the foundation of society, and not hearing these concerns before now jeopardizes that,” wrote Kelso.

“Is this subversive? Have we been deceived? The mayor and city council need to set the example of transparency, accountability, fairness and equality. You are elected officials.

“I have a personal relationship with this land. I’ve got five generations in this community — my grandmother, my parents and brothers are buried here. I have many friends buried here. This land is sacred to me.”

Kern officials noted that a TEIR was premature until the tribe has secured a compact with the state to operate an Indian gaming casino.

“The county takes exception to the preparation of this TEIR without a completed [state] compact, which would include the specific requirements for the TEIR,” wrote Oviatt. “Without such guidance the sufficiency and adequacy of the document are difficult to evaluate.”

She also pointed to the TEIR’s inaccurate claim that the valley’s water sustainability agency has not yet been finalized. On the contrary, she wrote, the IWV Groundwater Authority has been legally formed with five voting member agencies.

“Native American tribes were contacted during formulation and invited to participate but at the time of creation, no tribe had in trust land in the basin,” said Oviatt. She added that a full description of that authority and its regulatory power must be included in the TEIR.

“Further, the environment setting fails to convey the serious and critical overdraft conditions present in the basin for groundwater. Simply asserting that the water will be provided by the Indian Wells Valley Water District fails to comply with CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act], as significant cutbacks in water availability may and possibly will result from the sustainability plans required by California law.”

She also said that the study provides no further information on the proposed projected alternative use of the project, only stating that “based on the above, the proposed casino project is anticipated to have a lower water use than if the entire property were to develop as commercial as currently zoned …”

She said that analysis fails on two levels. “1. the property is currently vacant and uses no water, therefore the baseline is no water use. Comparing a proposed use to a fictional use to conclude the impact is less than significant does not provide substantial evidence as any fictional use could be selected, and 2. the assertion that a zoned piece of vacant property has rights to an unlimited amount of groundwater extraction from the IWV Water District is not supported by state law and current water law.”

Oviatt also noted the absence of discussion about fire codes, inspections and other consultations relating to public health. “Off-reservation impacts could include, but are not limited to, inadequate fire code inspections that threaten the base or adjacent properties, illness and spread of disease into the community from inadequate health code implementation by private inspectors, on-reservation traffic accidents that require Kern County Fire response or hazardous materials response.”

She also noted that the TEIR says that the anticipated compact will require negotiations with both the city and county. “No staff of Kern County have been contacted, to date, to discuss the required intergovernmental agreement and the Board of Supervisors has given no direction to staff that such negotiations should begin.”

The attached memo from the sheriff’s office states that nearby counties have all reported significant increases in crime, and thereby incurred costs to public safety, relating to the opening of casinos.

Tulare reported an additional 30-40 calls per month relating to the Eagle Mountain Casino, as well as an additional five arrests per week, at minimum.

Increased crime would be particularly difficult with the closure of the Ridgecrest jail, wrote DeLeon. “I was told by a representative of Kings County that we would see a significant increase in … DUI/alcohol/drug-related crimes, sexual assaults, prostitution, robberies, vehicle burglaries, vandalisms and trespassing,” he said.

“The information I provided is just a snapshot of the impact the casino will have on the Ridgecrest Substation. Building an attraction of this size, with the increase in population, tourism and crime will require a dramatic increase in patrol, jail and court staffing.”

DeLeon said the county would need an additional $950,000 annually in public safety funding “to be minimally operational.”

By contrast, the MSA allots the city $128,000 to offset public safety costs, in addition to the $400,000 to offset losses to traditional tax revenue streams (which tribes are exempt from paying to the city and any other form of government).

When the News Review solicited the city’s comments on the TEIR process, City Manager Ron Strand provided a letter signed by Breeden that notes the tribe’s lack of a state compact. “Thus, in the city’s view, the environmental document released by the tribe is not an actual TEIR, and is both untethered to any enforcement mechanism and premature.”

When asked about the discrepancy between the city’s fee from the MSA, versus what the county is asking for, Strand stood by the deal negotiated by the city.

“In reviewing the county’s document, our initial assessment is that it looks like it was poorly researched and some of the findings are exaggerated,” said Strand, who noted that he served the Police Department for 32 years prior to being named to his current position.

“I’m having Capt. Jed McLaughlin research the matter further,” he said. “We reserve our right to comment on the TEIR after the project is taken into trust.”

The tribe’s application is now under review with the Department of the Interior and the National Gaming Commission.

“They are researching whether this is a mandatory trust or a discretionary trust,” said Strand, who noted that while there are both practical and logistical differences between the two, it comes down to an expedited process with a mandatory trust application.

“That could take anywhere from three or four months to a year or more. There is no timeline they have to follow.”

Story First Published: 2018-05-04