Niagara Gazette

June 13, 2013

SCHEER: Finally, the casino cash stalemate is over

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the sheet of paper at 4:07 p.m. Thursday.

"It's done," he said. "Congratulations."

With that, Cuomo put a symbolic end to the great casino cash debate, arguably one of the darkest periods in the history of Niagara Falls, which is saying something around here.

Casino revenue, while a source of controversy at times, has become the lifeblood of the local municipal government.

Not only has it helped pave tattered roads and finance capital improvement projects, it has provided a stable source of income for a community where the tax base and population been trending down for many years.

It seems only after the Senecas stopped paying did the community truly realize just how important the money has become.

Thursday marked the official start of a new beginning, a time to not only celebrate the reunion of warring factions in the state and Senecas, but an opportunity for representatives in city government to finally breathe a little easier again.

After Cuomo's announcement, Controller Maria Brown characterized her feelings in a single word: Overwhelmed.

It was, after all, Brown's staff that had the unfortunate task of monitoring the city's rapidly dwindling accounts in the months since the Senecas stopped making regular casino cash payments.

After Cuomo's speech, Councilwoman Kristin Grandinetti could be heard thanking the Lord almighty for helping to bring Cuomo and Seneca Nation of Indians' President Barry Snyder Sr. to terms.

Councilman Charles Walker admitted he was planning to call next week for the creation of a nine-member panel to figure out what the city could do in the absence of casino revenue moving forward.

He too was relieved to hear Cuomo and Snyder assure him he could cancel his plans.

And then there was Mayor Paul Dyster, the guy who kept telling everyone — day in and day out and amid mounting financial pressure — to stay calm, be patient and have faith that it would all turn out OK.

When many others did not, Dyster trusted what Cuomo and his people kept telling him.

It paid off on Thursday, in spades. His "I-told-you-so" moment came in the form of a visit to his city by Cuomo himself.

"This is one of the great, happiest days of my life," Dyster said.

The money — all $89 million of it — does not make for an immediate fix for all that ails Niagara Falls financially.

It is expected to arrive in a matter of weeks and when it does Brown said the first order of business will be addressing the city's current general fund needs.

In the near-term, she said, the money will allow the city to take care of its most pressing problem - an extremely delicate cash flow situation that turned normally routine things like paying vendors and meeting payroll into daily concerns.

In the months ahead, Brown said the city should be able to move beyond addressing everyday financial concerns so it can once again focus on longer-term goals, including making good on capital projects and creating a sound plan for future spending.

She credited Cuomo and Snyder with getting over their issues and getting the job done when it mattered most.

"This is tremendous news," she said.

It looked like all hope might be lost last week when Snyder called Cuomo a "bully" and the on-again, off-again negotiations between the two sides appeared to break down. To their credit, both Snyder and Cuomo managed to rise above the rhetoric and get themselves back to the bargaining table where they hammered out what Cuomo characterized as a "win-win-win" deal for all parties involved.

The new agreement makes the city whole again, allows the Senecas to continue their exclusive gaming operations in Western New York and assures the state of tens of millions of dollars in slot machine revenue each year through 2023, the anticipated end to the now-extended gaming compact.

While the last two items are important, they pale in comparison to the first. With the return of casino revenue, as Cuomo said, Niagara Falls is "back in business - big time."

There's still a lot of work to do, obviously, but at least the city can stop focusing on budgetary problems and start talking about making some progress again.

At long last, the battle is over, the money is coming and there's peace in the land.

Now, as Snyder said so succinctly on Thursday: "Let's move forward."

Contact City Editor Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.