Senecas' fight with NY imperils county aid

ALBANY -- The Seneca Nation of Indians' refusal to pay the state a portion of its revenue from three western New York casinos could be a hit to the finances of county governments in the region.

Counties get a piece of the revenue from the casinos, and it totaled $46 million in the fiscal year that ended March 31. The state got $79 million.

But the payment stopped in March after the Senecas contended the agreement expired. Now the 16 counties and three cities that get the revenue are wondering if and when they will see any money from the Senecas, leaving millions of dollars of uncertainty in their local budgets.

Monroe County received $4 million last fiscal year, while Buffalo got nearly $7 million and Erie County got about $3.5 million. Smaller counties also get a share, such as $581,000 for Ontario; $533,000 for Steuben; and $254,000 for Chemung.

"It is unfortunate that this conflict between the state and the Seneca Nation is having a local impact on taxpayers here in Monroe County," County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo in a statement, saying it budgeted $3 million in this year's budget and $4 million next year in Seneca payments.

"Through conservative budgeting, we will adjust our operations to account for the revenue decrease while keeping my commitment to not raise property taxes," she continued.

The state and the tribe reached a deal in 2002 to pay a portion of their revenue from the casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca to the host cities and the counties in the region that are part of the Senecas' gaming exclusivity zone.

The zone stretches north and south along Route 14, running from Lake Ontario in Wayne County, through Chemung County and to the Pennsylvania border.

Now the Senecas charge that the revenue-sharing deal is over, and it's the state's responsibility to pay the local governments.

“The compact has been the same since 2002," said Phil Pantano, a Seneca spokesman. "As anyone who has read the compact knows, the obligation to pay local communities rests solely with the state of New York, and always has.”

The gaming compact itself goes until 2023, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the money is still owed by the Senecas.

He is threatening to find a developer to build a new casino in Niagara Falls, saying if the Senecas believe they don't have to pay, then the exclusive gaming rights for the region is also void.

Niagara Falls could be out $17 million annually, the most of any municipality in the region, if the Senecas hold out.

"They are not paying, so in the state’s opinion, they are not fulfilling the compact," Cuomo told reporters Tuesday in Rochester. "And their right to exclusive gaming is gone. You can’t have it both ways."

Seneca Nation President Todd Gates suggested Friday on "The Capitol Pressroom," a public radio show in Albany, that the sides may head to arbitration to settle the matter.

Complicating the negotiations are allegations being investigated by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office that a listening device was put in an office used by the state Gaming Commission at the tribe's Buffalo casino a year ago.

Cuomo said the investigation is the reason why he won't meet with Gates and the tribe.

"My office believes it would be inappropriate for me to meet with them at this time," Cuomo said.

But the Senecas countered that Cuomo is using the issue it as an excuse.

"These allegations are a year old, which makes the timing and purpose of their public release curious, to say the least," Gates said in a statement Aug. 21.

This isn't the first time the sides have been at odds over casino payments.

The 2013 agreement came after the Senecas had also stopped paying the state, claiming that the compact was infringed upon by other existing gaming facilities in the region.

The 2013 deal ended the dispute, but also continued a policy that limits the types of games that can be offered, as well as the marketing that can be done, by the three horse tracks with video-lottery terminals in the region: Finger Lakes, Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway.

© 2017 WGRZ-TV


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