Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul got it right when she suggested during a visit to Lockport last week that the Seneca Nation of Indians should adhere to the ruling of an arbitration panel and make good on outstanding casino cash payments to the state of New York.
As Hochul noted during an announcement about Downtown Revitalization Initiative funds at the Historic Palace Theatre, “fair is fair” when it comes to the arbitration panel’s ruling.
The Senecas agreed to binding arbitration as the process by which disputes would be resolved in the event one arose under its gaming compact with the state. Seneca leaders also agreed to move forward with arbitration when the state contested the nation’s stance that it did not owe any payments beyond the first 14 years of the deal.
The 2-1 arbitration panel ruling went against the Senecas, who are now unwilling to pay and have instead decided to pursue the matter in federal court.
Meanwhile, host communities where the Senecas operate casinos in Western New York, Niagara Falls included, are stuck in limbo while they wait to figure if, indeed, the Senecas will ever actually pay up.
Luckily, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration came through with roughly $5 million in holdover funds to help offset a massive budget hole in the Cataract City. The rest of the $12.3 million that his administration said it will give to the city, just in case, has been committed as well. If not for this money, where would the city be?
Seneca leaders want their concerns about the arbitration ruling heard in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York in Buffalo. The nation has filed motions seeking to overturn the arbitration panel ruling, which found the nation owed $255 million in slot machine revenue payments to the state.
It’s unclear how long it will take for the court to set a date for the case to be heard.
In its current financial predicament, Niagara Falls can’t afford to wait.
What the city needs is its representatives — powerhouses at the federal level like U.S. senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand or U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins — to call on the court to expedite the first hearing and get the process moving as quickly as possible. As a sign of support for such efforts, Niagara Falls lawmakers and representatives of the Niagara County Legislature should call on these folks to intervene.
While the court is going to do what it is going to do, the city’s financial situation remains dire. Even with a $5 million shot of state aid, there are serious challenges on the horizon. And, the lack of certainty about revenue makes it difficult to address the challenges.
How many residents are satisfied now with the level of service being provided by the city in terms of property maintenance, road repair or even public safety?
Niagara Falls is home to one of the most iconic natural wonders in all the world. In its current state, how many visitors would give it high marks for cleanliness and attractiveness?
The persistent problems of the city and its budget are not exclusive to the taxpayers who live and work there. Because the Senecas operate a Class III gaming facility and hotel in the heart of downtown, they too are affected by the woes of the municipal government, substandard public services included.
It is imperative for local elected leaders who were hired to represent the best interests of Niagara Falls to do whatever is within their power to obtain a ruling from the court on the matter as quickly as possible.
Seneca leaders have taken an aggressive stance on the matter and elected officials at all levels of government — local, county, state and federal — should respond in kind.
As Hochul correctly noted, “fair is fair.”