In the two years since officials approved a spending plan for Seneca Niagara Casino profits, the "local share" has hit nothing but bad luck.
For a year and a half, State Sen. George Maziarz and Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte took turns finding fault with each other's plans for spending Niagara Falls' share of slot revenues. The third party in the discussion -- Gov. George E. Pataki -- didn't break the impasse.
Then, at Thanksgiving, Maziarz and DelMonte agreed on a spending plan with a significant change from earlier proposals: It eliminated a guaranteed allocation to USA Niagara Development, the state's Niagara Falls development office, for projects planned in the downtown tourist zone.
Instead, the proposal left it to city government to turn over appropriate money for development.
Now, the governor is the one holding up the $24 million in 2004 and 2005 local share.
The governor's proposed budget, expected to be passed in April, gives USA Niagara Development the task of developing a spending plan. If successful, the casino local share may finally reach Niagara Falls organizations and projects by tourist season.
Why hasn't the governor just accepted the Maziarz-DelMonte plan?
"The governor believes the funds should go to support important projects like the Niagara Experience Center, the reconstruction of Old Falls Street and attracting private sector development, not political pork," Pataki spokesman Saleem Cheeks said last week.
Cheeks declined to detail what part of the Maziarz-DelMonte plan was considered "pork" -- a term usually meaning government spending driven by politics more than need.
USA Niagara Development, which coordinated the 2003 local-share spending plan, will play a similar role this time, Cheeks said.
"The budget language says the money will be spent pursuant to the plan developed by USA Niagara Development, obviously working with the local municipality and the county," Cheeks said.
Christopher Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development, said it would be inappropriate to discuss details of the spending plan "at this time."
He did point to the projects that his office has successfully developed to make concrete progress on revitalizing Niagara Falls, many fueled in part by casino local-share dollars. The new $19 million conference center, the ongoing $14 million renovation of the Crowne Plaza hotel and the reconstruction of Third Street for a growing entertainment district have helped begin to change downtown, he said.
"Nearly all of that first local share was spent in the City of Niagara Falls, helping the city meet its needs while also developing projects that were steps toward its future as a tourism center," Schoepflin said.
If the budget is on time, it can be approved in April, and the local-share millions can be distributed to organizations and accounts that have learned to make do.
Tourism-related establishments that relied on local-share dollars to complete their budgets -- like Conference Center Niagara Falls and marketing agency Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. -- had to scale back their plans last year because those dollars didn't flow in. The main 2005 advertising campaign for Niagara Falls and Niagara County was shelved.
Despite the statement from the governor's office, Maziarz, R-Newfane, remained confident last week that Pataki will approve the "memorandum of understanding" he crafted with DelMonte last year.
Once that happens, Maziarz said, he and DelMonte will introduce legislation that will offer guidelines for how local-share dollars should be spent over the remaining 11 years of the compact.
Apparently the governor's staff hasn't had enough time since the plan was announced to familiarize themselves with its details, Maziarz said.
"Once [Pataki] looks at the local plan we've developed, he'll see that there are projects in there that he supports," Maziarz said. "I just think his staff needs a little time to digest the [memorandum of understanding] and the legislation."
The Maziarz-DelMonte plan would spread the $24 million among Niagara tourism fixtures, city government, county government and Niagara Falls International Airport. Other proposed recipients, first included by Maziarz, include the Niagara Falls School District and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
The Thanksgiving plan was similar to proposals that Maziarz and DelMonte had discussed for the better part of a year. But there was one big difference: After 20 months of drafts, it cut out a guaranteed share for USA Niagara Development to spend on infrastructure projects in Niagara Falls.
Instead, that money would be transmitted to the City of Niagara Falls, which would decide how much was passed on to USA Niagara Development for the projects planned to revitalize the heart of Niagara Falls' planned tourism district.
The city has been starving for revenue in recent years, while millions of dollars were wiped off the tax rolls in chemical plant demolitions. Last year, the city library faced closing for lack of a half million dollars.
>"It's a trust thing"
Despite its need for money, city government should be trusted to do the right thing, said DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls. "It's a trust thing," she said.
DelMonte denounced the governor's intention to have USA Niagara Development guide the spending plan. After a year and a half of letting the local elected representatives decide what was best, the governor has backtracked, she said.
"This is just disgraceful and shouldn't be tolerated," she said. "All I want now is for the governor to respect that two representatives have come to terms on a distribution plan. As governor, he should respect what we've agreed to and let the City of Niagara Falls move forward."
It's important for the city to get the money because it's the right thing to do, said DelMonte. But there's a dollars-and-cents reason too: The city should be the beneficiary of interest that accrues while local-share millions are in the bank.
Maziarz said that he was certain the Legislature would reject a budget with language that put USA Niagara Development in charge of the spending plan. The governor's budget has had that clause in it before, and it never emerged in the final budget, the senator noted.
The rules might have changed in Albany, however. A 2005 court decision gives the governor more power over the state budget when it comes to money not specifically directed by state law, like the casino local share.
Maziarz said he believed that court decision wouldn't change the outcome.
"Every time in the past the Legislature has rejected it," he said, "and I think the Legislature will again."