Niagara Gazette

June 16, 2013

'Real work' beings for Falls officials in dealing with $89M in casino cash

By Justin Sondel justin.sondel@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — When Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Seneca Nation of Indians President Barry Snyder sat down in Niagara Falls to announce the end of the four-year gaming compact dispute between the parties last Thursday Mayor Paul Dyster, with a wide grin, described it as one of the best days of his life.

When reached by phone on Saturday Dyster struck a more sober and serious tone.

Dyster said the work of reconciling accounts and prioritizing needs in the city will be a slow and methodical process that will require hundreds of hours of work for city employees.

“Now the real work begins,” Dyster said.

Dyster’s administration and the city council have managed to avoid substantial tax hikes and layoffs while also maintaining most city services throughout the dispute, a task that was extremely difficult and was only accomplished through hard work and dedication from everyone in city hall, he said.

But the delivery of the $89 million that has been withheld since the Senecas stopped making payments in 2009 — they contend that the state violated the exclusivity clause in the 2002 gaming compact between the nation and the state — will mean that City Controller Maria Brown and her staff will now spend weeks figuring out exactly what accounts are owed how much and how the money will be distributed throughout those accounts.

Dyster compared that process to returning subway lines in New York City to service after they were flooded during Superstorm Sandy last fall, some of which will not be repaired for over a year.

“We’re shifting gears, going from the frantic work of trying to stop the city from going under to the frantic work of getting the machinery back up and running,” Dyster said. “You don’t just flip the switch and everything goes back to normal.”

The general fund and other accounts were borrowed from in anticipation of the withheld casino revenues and will now need to be replenished.

“This is something that we did to avoid massive tax increases on our already overburdened taxpayers,” Dyster said. “We did avoid that and we are now validated.”

Dyster has been meeting with department heads in recent weeks to review capital plans in anticipation of the negotiated settlement and is working to get back on track with the multi-year draft plan that his administration began plotting in the spring of 2008, he said.

“This is an evolving process,” the mayor said.

Now he will work with those department heads to prioritize deferred maintenance issues like street paving and repairs for city buildings.

Dyster’s administration and the city council will need to act quickly, as council does not meet in August, he said.

“Some things need to get moving because the construction season is only so long here,” Dyster said.

City Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian said he is glad the casino dispute is over, but the experience has made him realize that the city needs to plan for fiscal disasters in the future.

“This has taught us a lot of lessons,” he said.

Choolokian feels the city should develop a back up plan to avoid the stress that came with casino dispute.

“We don’t want to be put back in that situation again,” he said.

Choolokian said the city council will continue its conservative approach to spending in the future.

“Anything we do moving forward has to be a major effect on the families and businesses of Niagara Falls,” Choolokian said.

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257