Senecas bill NY $2 million for Thruway use 6-12-07

IRVING, N.Y. (AP) - One dollar per vehicle, 28,000 vehicles per day, going back to April 15. That's $2,156,000 the Seneca Indian Nation figures New York owes it for the use of a three-mile stretch of the Thruway across its Cattaraugus reservation.

“Please remit full payment to the attention of the nation's fiscal department within 10 days,” read a bill sent Tuesday to Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the state Transportation Department.

Seneca President Maurice John and Treasurer Kevin Seneca announced the billing at a news conference on a grassy bank of Interstate 90 as cars and trucks whizzed noisily by, some honking in apparent support of the tribe.

It was the latest in a series of media events the western New York tribe has staged in recent months to get the attention of Spitzer, who took office in January with the intention of collecting state sales tax on reservation sales of cigarettes and gasoline to non-Indian customers.

The issue has been a sore point between the Senecas and state for at least a decade and the tribe - which says it is protected from state taxation by treaties - has in the past deflected efforts to collect tax at its lucrative reservation stores.

Spitzer's budget for this year, however, envisions $200 million in revenues from reservation sales, though the administration has not yet said how the taxes would be collected.

At Tuesday's event, several nation members wore T-shirts with Spitzer's likeness crossed out in red above the words, “No taxes, never!”

But John said the Thruway tolls had nothing to do with the tax fight.

“We're talking apples and oranges,” he said.

The 8,000-member Indian nation has been charging the state $28,000 a day for the disputed stretch of Thruway since April, when the Tribal Council rescinded a 1954 right of way agreement that allowed the state to build on the reservation.

The Senecas said the pact, which paid the tribe $75,000, was invalid from the start because it never received proper federal approval. Now tribal leaders want to negotiate with the state for additional compensation, but say no talks have been set.

The bill delivered Tuesday covered tolls for April 15 through June 30.

“It's not up to us whether they pay it or not,” John said when asked whether he expected to see a check from the state.

“The governor's office is declining comment,” Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Pritchard said.

Asked what they might do if the state never pays the bill, tribal leaders held up some architectural renderings of a toll booth they would consider constructing across the roadway.

In the meantime, John said the Senecas will erect signs along the Thruway at the reservation's edge telling motorists that they are leaving New York state and entering Seneca territory.

In addition to the Thruway, the Senecas have taken aim at a 1976 agreement that allowed construction of the Southern Tier Expressway, now Interstate 86, on the Allegany Reservation. John said the council has extended a deadline for negotiations with the state on that issue for one month.