Niagara Gazette — EDITOR'S NOTE: City Editor Mark Scheer and reporters Justin Sondel and Timothy Chipp contributed to this report.
In unveiling what he described as a "disaster budget" for the city of Niagara Falls on Thursday, Mayor Paul Dyster made it clear that an ongoing dispute over gaming revenue between the Seneca Nation of Indians and the state of New York was largely to blame.
On Tuesday, voters in and around Niagara Falls will go to the polls to decide who will represent them in the state legislature starting next year.
What would those candidates do to ensure that the city received the casino cash it has been promised and how would they approach negotiations on any new agreements to avoid similar stalemates in the future?
State Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, who currently represents the Assembly's 138th District but would, if re-elected, represent the newly redistricted 145th District, said negotiations over money and other casino-related issues are handled by the governor's office and the Seneca Nation under the terms of the original gaming agreement. He suggested the issues between the two sides were there already when he took office in 2011, but that he has done what he can as a legislator to improve the situation for Niagara Falls. Ceretto said he's also proposed measures requiring the state to turn over a larger share of its portion of the gaming revenue - 50 percent as opposed to the 25 percent the city currently receives - under any future gaming agreement.
He also took part in a local task force organized by City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione that sought to obtain a "bridge loan" from the state to cover the city's needs while the arbitration process between the state and Senecas continues. Ceretto said Cuomo's staffers listened, but would not commit.
"Because of the way the compact was written, it feels like Niagara Falls is being held hostage," Ceretto said. "I have created legislation calling for the Senecas to give direct payments to Niagara Falls. But it's being held up."
Ceretto's Democratic opponent in the Assembly race, former city court judge and current Niagara Falls School Board member Robert Restaino, said that's not good enough. He believes the state could have issued funds to the city in anticipation of the gaming revenue dispute but did not and said it is the responsibility of elected officials like Ceretto to force such issues on behalf of their constituents.
"My approach would be a direct one, getting the governor to come to Niagara Falls to see the difficulties this community faces as a result of this impasse," he said.
As for any new agreement, Restaino said he supports direct payments to host communities and that representatives of those communities — Niagara Falls included — need to work to push legislation to make that happen.
"There's no push for a vote, no aggressive approach to make it right," he said. "Bills sitting in committee aren't accomplishing anything for the hosts. They need to be pushed through. If elected, I'm going to push the issue."
Amy Hope Witryol, Democratic challenger in this year's race for the state Senate's 62nd District, said the process overall needs more transparency and that the city — as well as other host communities — need representatives sitting at the negotiating table next time around.
"Their rights need to be specifically set forth in any agreement," she said.
She noted that her opponent in the race, incumbent state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, is the only locally elected state official still in office who was appointed to the committee that drafted the original agreement, which is widely regarded locally as flawed and poorly drafted.
"If I'm elected we will have competent representation and very specific language that protects every stakeholder in this district," Witryol said.
Witryol added the drafting of any future agreements should involve public hearings and meetings so that all parties, including the Senecas, can present possible options to the public, gather public input and make an informed decisions.
"Then I need to go to work and to fight for that," Witryol said.
Maziarz, R-Newfane, said he too has co-sponsored legislation aimed at allowing the Seneca Nation to make direct payments to the Falls and other host municipalities, including most recently in the senate's last session. He said such a provision should be included in any gaming agreement moving forward. The current gaming compact expires in 2016.
"I can tell you that I would not support any legislation on the Senate side of the aisle that did not include a clause that had the money being paid directly from the Senecas to cities," Maziarz said.
He also said he would not support a contract that did not provide the state some legal recourse in the event the Seneca Nation stopped making payments.
As for the original gaming deal, Maziarz described its creation as a "learning experience for the parties involved and that at this point the focus should be on what can be done in the future to create the best possible outcome for host communities and the state.
"I firmly believe that Niagara Falls is owed the money, deserves the money and should be paid by the Senecas," Maziarz said.