A city that relied heavily on dollars from payments by a Native-run casino within its borders is now living without that money and making some tough decisions to address a budget gap. Among the casualties this year is an Independence Day fireworks display that was to be held at Hyde Park.
Mayor Paul Dyster had hoped despite the city's financial strains, the Council would agree to move forward with an estimated $25,000 fireworks display this coming July 4.
"We thought that in a budget of over $90 million, that's a relatively modest investment to make to celebrate our most important national holiday," Dyster said Wednesday. "At the end of the day, the City Council decides what we do and don't spend money on."
Councilman Ezra Scott, Jr. told WBFO Thursday canceling the fireworks was a difficult decision but one he and his colleagues needed to make.
"We had to realize there were some bad decisions that were made in the past, irresponsible decisions that were made in the past as far as the city's finances, using casino funds," Scott said. "What we figured was it was time to do some things different, unorthodox."
It's one of several tough decisions Scott anticipates will be made as the City of Niagara Falls learns to live without the funding it previously relied on from Seneca Niagara casino payments. Until 2016, the Seneca Nation was making quarterly payments to New York State in exchange for exclusive rights to operate casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. Under the terms of the Casino Compact, the Seneca Nation's obligations ended after 14 years.
The Seneca Nation has firmly held the position that they have completed their obligation and owe no more payments. New York State is challenging that and has the right to do so, under terms of the Compact, through arbitration.
That process has remained stalled, however. Three panelists are required. The Seneca Nation and New York State have picked their representatives but have not yet reached an agreement on the third person for the arbitration panel.
Scott noted that the city has also canceled a cleanup project on the median along John B. Daly Boulevard, another decision made to save money.
The fireworks display would cost about $25,000, Scott estimated. That money, he told WBFO, could help create or preserve a job.
"We figured why spend this on fireworks or the medians when we have an opportunity to hold on to these funds and maybe pay for another job, an opportunity for an individual in Niagara Falls," Scott said.
But the city faces a projected budget deficit of $10 million to $12 million in 2019, Councilman Chris Voccio told WBFO in late April. Layoffs are an option Scott hinted that he and peers are reluctant to choose. When asked about raising taxes, Scott on Thursday and Voccio last month both expressed opposition to the idea.