There's still no sign that arbitration involving New York State and the Seneca Nation will get underway any time soon. At issue is their disagreement over the terms of their Casino Compact and the payments Albany insists are still owed. Seneca Nation President Todd Gates was asked: would his nation be willing to enter a side agreement with the cities who have come to depend on those dollars?
New York State insists the Seneca Nation must continue making millions of dollars in quarterly payments, which are then distributed among Albany, Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, in exchange for the Senecas' exclusive rights to operate casino gaming in those municipalities. The Senecas, in turn, say it was spelled out in the Compact that their financial obligations ended in 2016.
That's what the Senecas will continue to argue when arbitration, announced last year, finally gets underway. The problem is that both sides, who have designated their representatives on the three-person panel, have not come to an agreement on who the third person shall be.
Seneca Nation President Todd Gates didn't rule out the possibility of making side agreements directly with the municipalities but added that there have been no such discussions.
"We're open to discussions," Gates said during a recent appearance at the Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino in Niagara Falls. "Mike Smith down in Salamanca, he's a Nation member, so we talk to him quite often but right now we're waiting to see how this plays out. We've actually got our hands tied with the arbitration."
Smith, the Mayor of Salamanca, was not present as Gates made those comments but Niagara Falls Councilman Chris Voccio was inside the resort hotel as Gates and other Seneca leaders announced the launch of a $40 million renovation and beautification project on those grounds.
"My point of view is that I would be supportive of an agreement that was mutually beneficial. However, I would also have a concern that it could be perceived as interfering with the ongoing legal proceeding," Voccio said. "That would not be a good thing."
Voccio emphasized that he was speaking only on his behalf and not that of the full Council but told WBFO the city's position is that arbitration between Albany and the Seneca Nation is pending. As the city waits for those talks to begin, it faces what Voccio says is a projected deficit between $10 million and $12 million.
Mayor Paul Dyster recently revealed to WBFO that the city was scaling back projects this summer including road improvements. Voccio suggests that's just the beginning in what may be many tough decisions.
"I can only speak for myself and I'm very concerned, but we're going to have to make some very difficult this budget season," he said. "I'm prepared to do that. I'm convinced my four colleagues on the Council and the administration understands the situation that we're in. I think we're going to come together and do the right thing and the right thing means making very difficult decisions."
Voccio expressed hope some of the decisions could be made with the help and cooperation of the city's unions. He also stated he's opposed to raising taxes as part of solving the budget gap.