Havre Daily News
The Rocky Boy tribal council has revoked the business license of Debbie St. Pierre, owner of Village Grocery, forcing her to close by Wednesday.
"The Tribe is revoking your business license because of your failure to remit the cigarette taxes owed to the Tribe on your cigarette allocation," chairman John "Chance" Houle wrote Friday in a letter to St. Pierre.
St. Pierre said that under her business license, only the tribal court can revoke the license. She said she won't close unless the tribal council sends the police.
Through an agreement with the state, the tribe has an allocation of 18,000 cartons it can buy without paying state tax. Of those, 1,000 were allotted to St. Pierre, who has refused to pay a tribal tax of 55 cents a pack since the tribal council approved an increase of 50 cents on Jan. 6. She said the increase was improperly adopted.
Tribal police confiscated cigarettes from Village Grocery two weeks ago. Tribal officials also said in an affidavit that she was selling cigarettes without the required state tax stamp.
On Friday, a tribal judge denied St. Pierre an injunction against the cigarette seizure.
"The Tribe sent a letter to you on April 5, 2005 with an invoice requesting payment of the cigarette tax," Houle wrote. "The Tribe sent another letter to you on April 25, 2005 again requesting payment of the cigarette tax and informing you of the deadline set for today at 12 p.m. to remit taxes owed to the Tribe."
St. Pierre said the tribe asked her to pay $5,500 by Friday for back taxes, which she called an unrealistic amount.
Houle has said St. Pierre could pay the tax and pass it on to her customers. But St. Pierre said she could not do that to cover the tax on cigarettes she has already sold without charging for the tax. St. Pierre also said she thinks it's unfair to tax tribal residents given the high unemployment rate on the reservation.
"I suspected that it was coming," St. Pierre said about the revokation of her license. "I had heard it a few months ago, that they were going to break me."
St. Pierre calls the meeting when the tax increase was passed a "sneak meeting" because it was not advertised. The tribe opened its own cigarette shop on April 10, and St. Pierre said she thinks the tribe's April decision to confiscate her cigarettes was not a coincidence.
Houle said he is following decisions made by the tribal council. Bob Swan, financial manager for the Chippewa Cree Community Development Corp., which operates the new tribal smoke shop, said St. Pierre could charge the same price or a lower price than the tribe's shop.
"I've been here 15 years and then all of the sudden all these problems when a few greedy people get into the council," St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre said she's gathering signatures on a petition to ask for a referendum vote on the January tax increase.
According to the tribe's constitution, members have six months after a tribal government decision to submit a petition for a referendum vote. The window will close on the Jan. 6 vote next month.
"Next thing they'll be telling me where I can buy crackers or salt or sugar," St. Pierre said. "And they wonder why there aren't more businesses, and Chance says he's promoting small business."