By Glenn Choolokian
Niagara Gazette — The casino settlement money, our money, has arrived and that’s a very good thing.
After four years of waiting for the disagreement between New York state and the Seneca Nation to be settled the portion of casino slot revenue owed to Niagara Falls will now be coming in the amount of $89 million.
The casino funds are here but so are the lingering, long-range fiscal problems of our city. It’s going to take hard work and cooperation between city council and mayor joined with effective planning to get our financial situation back in order.
As the casino revenue crisis played out our city suffered through two successive bond rating drops, with all the hard work done by the Niagara Fall City Council we avoided a tax increase and a reduction in city services that Mayor Paul Dyster proposed. The mayor nearly accepted a costly New York Power Authority cash settlement out of desperation. The city of Niagara Falls was criticized (rightly so) by the state comptroller for its spending habits and money management methods.
The casino revenue disagreement made for tough times for our city. So, for the settlement we are thankful but I see no reason for hats and horns and claims of a big win. At the end of the day this was our city finally getting what it was owed and what had been held back as New York State grew increasingly concerned over the pending arbitration outcome.
Throughout the entire process Niagara Falls had to go along for the ride with the state of New York as everything played out beyond our control.
We should be used to this by now since the casino compact was put in place by the state without our input. The casino revenue disbursement percentages were established by the state without our input. Our 52 downtown acres were taken from us without our input. And this final agreement was worked out by the state without our input.
But having said that - and recognizing the reality of the city government to state government relationship - we have to get down to the business of managing the $89 million settlement. So what’s next?
The city has to immediately address all outstanding debt and commitments including making the general fund whole again. What eventually remains in the hands of city government after all commitments are met is where the real challenge begins.
It’s at this point where we must get down to the serious business of doing things differently. Because: if we go down the same road of bad spending habits that brought us here we’re sure to end up back in fiscal crisis again sooner or later.
This $89 million is going to attract all sorts of groups (new and old), proposals, consultants, plans and ideas from across the city and region the way ants are attracted to a picnic. The only two questions we need to keep in mind as we administer the casino funds are: Is this particular project/proposal/expenditure needed and is it good - ultimately good in the long term - for Niagara Falls and its taxpayers.
There’s nothing we can do to change the past and the milk that was spilled isn’t going back in the bottle. So we have to learn from the bitter lessons we’ve been taught over the past several years as our casino cash was stalled. We have to grasp the difference between a “spending plan” and a “money management plan.” Anyone can spend dollars (just look at the lottery winners that are broke shortly after hitting the jackpot) but it requires planning and hard work to maintain an effective money management regimen.
This casino revenue settlement is good news but it’s also a perfect opportunity for city government to show our critics that we are ready to move forward with a united front and in a single minded attitude for the greater good and ultimate benefit of the entire Niagara Falls community.
The city council and mayor must now join in a spirit of cooperation and negotiation to develop a casino revenue management plan that is transparent and delivered to the residents with responsibility and accountability.
Glenn A. Choolokian is the chairman of the Niagara Fall City Council.Glenn A. Choolokian is the chairman of the Niagara Fall City Council.