As a stalemate continues in a casino compact dispute between New York State and the Seneca Nation, local municipalities that depend on casino cash are feeling the strain. In Niagara Falls, they've already scaled back projects including road repairs.
The City of Niagara Falls is planning to pave about 15 streets, using $1.8 million in state aid. Mayor Paul Dyster says the city would have been able to repair about twice that many roads, had casino payments from the Seneca Nation kept coming.
But those payments stopped last year. The Senecas maintain they were obligated only for 14 years under the Casino Compact to provide payments to New York State, which shared with Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. Without those payments, Niagara Falls took steps to live without those casino dollars.
"We instituted a spending freeze on all non-essential expenditures to try to hold on to cash through 2017 and we continue that into 2018," said the mayor. "There are going to be some significant impacts and I think some of them are, as the weather warms, people are going to notice in their neighborhood."
New York State insists the Seneca Nation remains obligated to make millions of dollars of casino revenue payments. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said the Senecas have been given an opportunity to generate large sums of money through an agreement which gives them exclusive gaming rights in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca.
Both sides are preparing to take their dispute to arbitration. The problem, Hochul explained, is that both sides remain apart on the selection of a third panelist required for such arbitration.
Her message to Mayor Dyster and other municipal leaders affected by this dispute is that Albany understands their frustration. She urges the Seneca Nation, meanwhile, to resume a payment schedule.
"The easiest solution to this problem is for the Senecas to continue making the payments that we believe they are legally required to make," Hochul said. "That will alleviate this crushing burden that is now hurting our cities. We can feel the impact of this."
Mayor Dyster told the city is exploring other opportunities to create new revenue. When asked if this may include tax increases, he would not rule them out.
"That is driven, in part perhaps, by the shortfall of casino revenues," Dyster said. "But I also think some of these things are issues you have to look at from the perspective of good government, you know, are we keeping with our responsibilities in order to balance a budget for the city?"