While a dispute over halted casino revenue payments continues, lawmakers in the City of Niagara Falls want to have a plan to spend those dollars more smartly, should those casino payments resume in the near future.
Why make a plan to spend money that, currently, is not a sure thing?
"In terms of the timing, the thought is we want to have this in place before anything happens, so we don't get a notification or a press release from Albany or the Senecas saying 'great news, a resolution has happened' and then we put together a plan," said Councilman Chris Voccio. "We want the plan in place before anything breaks."
Since 2014, city lawmakers have increased portions of casino payments for use in the general fund. Council Chairman Andrew Touma says lawmakers want to focus less on putting those dollars into the general fund and more on paying off debts and spending on capital projects.
"We also want to use more money towards economic development," Touma said. "We want to work on growing the city, subsidizing projects but also having money on reserve that we haven't had in the past for emergency purposes or special projects that come about."
Touma added that while they've gratefully enjoyed the support of New York State in its own economic redevelopment, especially in its tourism sector, the city recognizes it needs to stand on its own feet to further its own version of an economic renaissance as Buffalo is experiencing.
Voccio says he and his peers recognize the need for smarter spending. The plan, which also included the input of Mayor Paul Dyster and Controller Daniel Morello, will be considered as a resolution at a Council meeting in early April.
"It wasn't a consensus but I think we all agree that having a plan is better than no plan at all," Voccio said. "I don't think many of us are happy with the way those monies may have been spent in the past. We thought we'd take a more methodical approach to spending those dollars going forward."
Voccio explained this year's city budget includes an estimated $11 million of previous casino payments that were available in reserves. The concern is for what happens if casino payments remain out of the budget formula after this year.
The Seneca Nation of Indians ceased casino revenue payments after 2016, contending that under the Casino Compact with New York State, they were no longer obligated to make such payments after 14 years. The state is disputing that and, last year, both sides agreed to arbitration.
No one in City Hall had an idea when a decision may be rendered. But Touma is confident Albany will ultimately prevail.
"We have all the confidence in the world that at some point in time the city will be receiving funds again from the Senecas," Touma said. "And then when we do, we want to make sure we have a policy in place moving forward.