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PATAKI ASSURES TOWN IN SENECA SUIT

Gov. George E. Pataki has mailed letters to every Grand Island homeowner to assure them that they won't lose their homes or businesses to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Pataki's assurances come as the Grand Island Town Board prepares to vote Wednesday to ask state and federal officials to reject a proposed gaming compact until the Seneca land claim is resolved.

Grand Island leaders are frustrated that Pataki and state negotiators agreed to let the Senecas open three local casinos without tying the gaming deal to the land claim.

In fact, Supervisor Peter A. McMahon is asking Pataki's staff to set up a meeting where local officials can personally raise their objections with the governor.

"(Pataki) felt the gaming compact was more important than the lives, property and homes of 18,621 people. And I think he's wrong," said Councilman Michael E. Heftka, a Democrat who introduced the Town Board resolution.

Talk of the governor abandoning island residents is "unfortunate and not well-informed," Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said.

"The governor is going to make sure the people are protected," McKeon said.

Local officials are reacting to an agreement announced last week by Pataki and Seneca President Cyrus M. Schindler to build casinos in Niagara Falls and downtown Buffalo.

Advocates say the agreement will pump millions of dollars of tourism revenue into the economies of both struggling cities.

But the agreement included no
mention of the Seneca land claim, filed in 1992, in which the Senecas say they own Grand Island and several smaller islands in the Niagara River.

In a letter that homeowners began receiving Monday, Pataki said casino opponents are trying to raise fears about the Seneca land claim in an effort to derail the gaming agreement.

Pataki said he believes the state has a strong legal argument in the land claim, which is in U.S. District Court, and will win the case.

He also said the state will hold the federal government "at their word" on the government's pledge to remove individual property owners from liability in the land claim.

"But rest assured, no matter what the outcome of the court case, every citizen will have the full protection of the State of New York and no private citizen will ever have to pay a dime because of this land claim," Pataki wrote.

So far, local officials aren't resting assured.

The Town Board is holding a special meeting at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday to consider Heftka's resolution, which asks the state and federal government to deny gaming approval until the land claim is resolved.

"We're giving them an awfully big prize, and let's not end up taking it on the chin," Heftka said.

The casino agreement already has passed the State Senate. The Assembly could vote on the measure this week, but leaders have indicated they might hold off and use the casino issue as leverage in negotiations over the long-stalled state budget.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, a critic of the gaming compact, said the Assembly ultimately will weigh the agreement more carefully than the Senate. He was underwhelmed by the governor's comments to homeowners.

"Simply sending a letter saying, 'I'm looking out for you,' to me isn't good enough," Hoyt said.

McMahon, the town supervisor, said he hopes to set up meetings with Pataki and with U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton to raise the island's concerns with the political leaders.

"Hopefully, we will get firm commitments" that island residents will be held harmless in the land claim, McMahon said.

James R. Sharpe, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, said he's so frustrated by the casino agreement that he's urging people to vote against Pataki next year.

"I think Grand Island's been sold down the river," Sharpe said. "There is not a positive spin on this for Grand Island, not as long as they're compromising us away."

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