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Gaming Commission will set time limit on tribe’s casino bid

LAKEVILLE — The state Gaming Commission has the sole authority to decide how long the state will wait for the Mashpee Wampanoag  to resolve their federal woes before opening Southeastern Massachusetts for bids from commercial casinos, Chairman Stephen Crosby told community leaders in that region Thursday.

Governor Deval Patrick  and the tribe announced Wednesday that they had finalized an agreement that allows the Mashpee Wampanoag to operate a casino. The agreement, known as a compact, will now go before the state Legislature for approval prior to the end of the month.

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The Mashpee Wampanoag want to open a tribal casino in Taunton, and the biggest hurdle the tribe faces is related to land. Tribal gambling can only take place on sovereign Indian lands, and the Mashpee have no land that qualifies. The tribe has asked the federal government to take the proposed Taunton casino site into trust for its use, making the land eligible to host gambling.

But the land-in-trust procedure could take years and may not even be possible due to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that severely restricts the government’s ability to take land into trust.

“Getting the land into trust could go quickly or it could take forever,” Crosby said. “The Gaming Commission will have to make a decision on how long we’ll wait. We have the absolute right to jump in and say the interests of Southeastern Massachusetts are not being met.”

Just how long the Commission will wait has yet to be decided, Crosby said.

The Gaming Commission chairman attended a meeting in Lakeville on Thursday to listen to concerns from leaders in seven southeastern Massachusetts communities that border Taunton.

Until Thursday, the communities had been afforded no say in the consideration of the proposed tribal casino. Officials said they feared stress to local roads and bridges, water and sewer systems, public safety departments and schools from a casino.

Lakeville Selectman Derek Maksy said the town’s Assawompset pond complex supplies waters to several communities, including Taunton. “Right now, 200,000 residents rely on this water,” Maksy said. “They’re talking water parks. How do you protect the residents who need this water?”

Crosby said about $7 million  in mitigation funds for Southeastern Massachusetts towns would be available once casino revenue starts flowing in. The Gaming Commission will decide which communities get the funding.

State Representative Keiko Orrall,  who had organized the meeting with Crosby, was unimpressed with the amount. “I don’t think that will be enough to satisfy the needs of every community,” Orrall said.

Community leaders were also looking for money now so they could study the impact of the casino and come up with mitigation proposals.

“The fact that the governor didn’t give us any funds to do studies for mitigation is an oversight,” said Middleborough Town Manager Charles Cristello.  “The statute on commercial casinos gives you all this up-front control. In our case, we don’t have any.”

The Commission has $15 million  from the state’s rainy day fund that can be spent at its discretion, Crosby said. “It could fund some of the studies not taken care of in the environmental impact reviews,” he said.

Crosby told community leaders to join forces. “Taken together, you’ve got a lot of muscle,” he said.

According to Crosby, communities will have chances to voice concerns during state permitting. “This is not going to happen quickly,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time. That gives you time to marshal your resources.”

Also Thursday, Governor Patrick pledged to lobby the federal government on behalf of the tribe.

“I’m going to be working with the tribe to try to get a prompt resolution,” the governor promised in a meeting with reporters.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com
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