By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The ongoing gaming revenue dispute between New York state and the Seneca Nation of Indians caused pain and anxiety for every department in city government in 2012.
While city officials pointed to the lack of incoming gaming revenue as reason for belt-tightening this year, residents — who saw the city give up valuable downtown land in exchange for the promise of yearly contributions from the casino’s profits — felt the bulk of the pain as the battle continued to wage between two entities that seem unconcerned about their troubles.
When the money was coming in, things were good. Roads were being repaved at rates the city hadn’t seen since the heyday of industrial opportunity in the Falls. Mayor Paul Dyster was able to set up teams of city workers from several departments to address blight one block at a time. Property tax increases were small or non-existent.
For the last couple years, city officials were able to continue spending in anticipation of receiving the money that the city is owed — now estimated to be around $60 million — which the Senecas have been holding in an account, at the ready for a compromise with the state or a resolution to the ongoing arbitration.
Dyster said things looked like they might be coming to an end last fall but, after a deal between the two sides fell through, the prospect of an end to the dispute outside the court system faded.
“I think that much of what you saw throughout the year was a hardening of positions from both the Senecas and the state,” Dyster said.
Dyster said with Barry Snyder Sr. recently elected as the new president of the Seneca Nation there is still hope that a settlement can be reached outside of the arbitration process, and sooner rather than later.
“You do have a new leader at the Seneca Nation in Barry Snyder,” Dyster said. “Toward the end of this year there is a glimmer of hope.”
But this year, as it became clear that an end to the dispute was not likely before the budget process began, there was speculation as to whether the state would step in with a relief package to get the city through the next year. Dyster stalled on presenting his proposed budget, becoming the first mayor to present a budget late in 11 years.
A relief offer from the state did come in the form of a spin-up of aid from the New York Power Authority, but only after Dyster had released his “disaster budget” which included an 8.3 percent property tax increase and pink slips for 18 city hall employees.
The city council rejected the NYPA deal and instead introduced 150 amendments to the mayor’s proposed budget, one of which stopped $3.1 million in state aid from being passed through to the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp., as it has been for the past decade.
Councilman Glenn Choolokian said until a resolution is reached between the state and Seneca Nation the council will continue to look for ways to save money and keep spending down in city hall.
“We have to get closure on that case,” Choolokian said. “It depends on which way they decide. Then we have to figure out which way we are going to go.”
When all was said and done, 12 of Dyster’s 39 vetoes stood, more than half of the city hall employees slated for layoffs kept their jobs and there was no property tax increase for home or business owners. It remains to be seen how the council’s cuts will impact city departments on the ground level.
Choolokian said the city needs to be included in Albany’s plans in the future and that the council needs to be more vocal with the state.
“You have all these plans and you’re not including us,” Choolokian said. “I just hope Niagara Falls government is included on a lot of these decisions because we live here.”top stories The Gazette is counting down its top 10 stories of the year through New Year's Day. The list: n 10: Tumultuous year for Falls air base n 9: Airport takes hit with Direct Air shutdown n 8: Lewiston Road's rough ride to repair n 7: Culinary institute opens in downtown Niagara Falls n 6: Gruesome mysterious death stuns Falls n 5: Child murder shocks the community n 4: Change is afloat for the Maid of the Mist n 3: Falls struggles in absence of casino cash n COMING TOMORROW: Agency reborn after scandal