HORTON, Kan. - Merle "Mickey" Cisneros lives alone in a house filled with memories.
His seven children are grown with families of their own and his wife has passed away. All he has is the home they built on the Kickapoo reservation here in the early 1970s and its memories. Now, thanks to a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision, (Cass County, Minn., vs. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe 524 US 103) Cisneros is in danger of losing that home.
In the 1970s, Cisneros and other Kickapoo families took advantage of a mutual help housing project on the reservation. They built their homes on land they believed belonged to the tribe. Now that 1998 court ruling, which allows states to tax privately owned land within reservation boundaries, shocked the homeowners. The land beneath their homes is not tribal land nor is it in trust status. It is considered to be privately owned which means both the home and the land can and will be taxed.
Cisneros received a tax bill a week ago on the land that he had believed was tax exempt. It said he was in default on his property taxes. Although he knew there was talk of taxing property owners on the Kickapoo reservation, receipt of the bill was the first time he actually knew anything about it. The bill stated he was in default of his 1999 property taxes and must pay nearly $600 by Dec. 20, 2000. He also is behind for his 2000 taxes - one half was due in July and the rest in December.
His first inclination was that there was no way he was going to pay the taxes, he said, but then he realized he would lose his home if he didn't.
"I saw this and I wrote on the envelope that I'd go to hell before I paid this," Cisneros said. "But then you come to your senses. They can come to my front door and hand me an eviction notice and take my property."
For Cisneros and many of his neighbors on limited incomes, the tax bills seem overwhelming. Cisneros lives on his Social Security check with occasional help from his children. "I don't have long distance, I can't even afford that," he said.
After receiving the tax bill, he used up valuable resources paying for gasoline as he drove from one government office to another, trying to get assistance and information on the taxes he owes.
He lays blame for the surprise tax bill at the door of the Kickapoo Tribal Council, saying its inaction may cost many tribal members their homes. Angry not only about the taxes, but also about the way the Kickapoo tribe handled the whole situation, Cisneros said, "Those people aren't there helping us. They are just sitting there collecting their paychecks. They aren't helping us."
The tribe held a meeting the week of Thanksgiving, but no Brown County officials were asked to attend. Debbie Rowland from the Brown County Treasurer's office said she was surprised no one from the county had been invited.
"We could have at least explained what was going on and how the taxes would affect them."
Cisneros said he got angry during the tribal meeting. "I just took the papers that they were handing out and shoved them in my pocket. I got mad when Charlie Laman (a tribal attorney) started talking about how we were a conquered people and we had to expect to pay taxes. I left."
Cisneros and many of his neighbors are afraid they will be evicted from their homes if they don't pay their back taxes by the Dec. 20 deadline. Legal assistance is out the question for Cisneros and many of the others affected. "It comes down to money," Cisneros said, "We just can't afford it."
Will the tribe step in to help homeowners?
"We have given them legal assistance," Chairwoman Nancy Bear said. "We worked with the county on this ... we do have to pay these taxes."
Cisneros said he hadn't seen any legal assistance from the tribe and the only thing he believes he can do to save his home is to try to get a loan from the bank.
Rowland said that right now property owners weren't in danger of losing their homes. Property taxes must be delinquent for three years before the eviction process begins. She said however, she is very concerned about why Kickapoo property owners have just received their tax bills.
Bear defended the timing of tax bills, saying the tribe didn't receive the 1999 tax bills until three or four months ago and that a lot of work had to be done to find out who owned what.
"We sent the original bills to the Kickapoo Tribe in November of 1999," Rowland said.
"Some of the titles were filed with the county and others were filed through tribal court, so we had to sort all that out," Bear said. She went on to explain that some tribally owned houses are on tribal land, some privately owned houses sit on tribal land and some privately owned homes are on privately owned land.
Rowland acknowledged that the timing of the tax bills, just before Christmas, could be compared to the story of the Grinch. But she went on to say that it was out of the county's hands. The tax bills were sent to the tribe more than a year ago. She said she couldn't understand why it took the tribe so long to find the 20 homeowners and let them know about the tax bills.
"The only listings we had were of the Kickapoo Tribe as owners of the houses, so that was where we sent the tax bills," Rowland said.
Bear countered by saying the tribe got them all, but they weren't all the tribe's. "The county didn't even know the names of the homeowners," Bear said, adding the tribe had to get legal property descriptions. She also said tax notices had gone out from the tribe's tax committee, but acknowledged the actual amount of taxes owed were just given to the home owners.
Because so much time has passed since the first bills were sent, homeowners would have to pay delinquent 1999 taxes all at once. Rowland said regulations and policies tied the hands of Brown County employees.
"People have been coming in because they don't understand it. I feel for them, I really do. I wish there was something I could do, but my hands are tied."
Bear has been advising Kickapoo homeowners to pay their taxes under protest. Asked if the tribe would be able to assist those who couldn't pay back taxes, Bear said, "What we have encouraged the people to do is to pay the taxes. That's the law that is in place until we can get everything straightened out and see what our next move is going to be."
Bear said it was important for tribal members to pay the taxes to keep their homes and said the tribe was urging the homeowners to not only pay under protest, but to also protest the amount of the taxes on their homes. Bear said she believed that the county had assessed the homes at too high a rate.
"But the law is very clear, they have to pay the taxes," Bear said.
She went on to say she thought taxes collected by the county should be returned to the tribe for road maintenance and other services normally performed by the county. Bear said that on the reservation, the tribe is responsible for most, if not all these usual services and that if the county is going to collect taxes, those tax dollars need to go back into the reservation as well as other areas in the county.
Cisneros also said the assessments on the homes made no sense to him.
"I put a sign up, 'House for Sale $42, 900.' That is what they said my house was worth. You show me someone who is willing to come up here and buy my house for that price. They can have it if they want to pay that. You know I could never sell that house for that much."
Many counties in Kansas have 'drive-by appraisals.' County appraisers more often than not simply drive by the homes they are appraising, park on the street and never come to the door. In one case in another Kansas county, a home was given a higher tax appraisal because the appraisal mistakenly put down the home had a basement. In actuality the home had a stone foundation with small windows in the foundation for ventilation under the house.
Two years ago, in a county, 70 miles south of the Kickapoo reservation, homeowners found their properties were assessed at two and three times the value of the year before. In many cases appraisals were higher than the actual value of the homes. In that case, the county appraiser stated the previous appraiser had not been updating appraisals for several years and defended her decision to appraise the homes at higher values.
Bear said she sees the move by the county as another attempt to take land away from tribal members. She said homeowners could put apply to put their land in trust status, but added the tribe has had several pieces of land awaiting a BIA decision for almost 12 years.
"That is an individual choice," Bear said. "The tribe would not go through the application process itself for them. That is up to them. We would help with it. The local BIA office has encouraged them to apply, but my understanding from BIA is that they didn't seem very encouraging about it. They don't want to get into trust land with privately owned houses on it."
Cisneros snorted at the thought of getting any help from the BIA, saying the head of the local BIA office was "nothing but a puppet."
Blame and finger pointing by the tribe and the county however, won't help Cisneros and his neighbors. They are legally bound to pay back taxes they say they can't afford.
"The tribe intends to help the Kickapoo enrolled members," Bear said. She didn't say what that help would include, but said she didn't believe the Supreme Court decision could be overturned.
"They started in with the gasoline and the cigarette taxes first," Cisneros said. "This is an attack on our sovereignty. Why the federal agencies don't do anything about this is beyond me."
For now Cisneros and his neighbors face a bleak Christmas as they struggle to pay taxes and fight to save their homes. Cisneros said his greatest fear was the possibility of armed confrontations between homeowners and county officials if evictions begin.
"These are our homes," he concluded sadly. "We want to keep them. I just don't know what people will do."