What we have here is a mess. Suddenly desperate for revenues, the powers that be in Albany have agreed to a casino plan for Buffalo that is, in almost every respect, inadequate. Buffalo should use all the tools it has -- from its permitting process to legal action -- to shut it down.
The measure accomplishes none of the goals that would make this deal worthwhile for Buffalo. It neither grants a lion's share of the state's cut of slot machine revenues to the city nor creates an independent authority to make sure the money is spent on economic development. It lacks the clear commitment to use this money to help Buffalo recover from the economic morass it has been mired in for decades.
The legislation provides Buffalo and Erie County with too little money, and it leaves Albany to decide how to spend what little revenue will come this way. It focuses disproportionately on the state's short-term problems and not enough on this region's long-term prospects. It fails to provide additional funding to cover the social costs of casinos, such as crime and gambling addiction. It does nothing to address land claims of the Seneca Nation, which will own the casinos. Why would we want this?
The same deal covers a similar casino in Niagara Falls, where it makes more sense. That city relies heavily on a tourist economy that desperately needs a boost. In addition, Niagara Falls must compete with a thriving casino across the river. A casino on the American side of the falls would be an important tool for the state's new economic development corporation, which Gov. George E. Pataki created to help revive the city. But in this case, what works in Niagara Falls does not work in Buffalo.
The temptation, of course, is to take the money and run. The deal struck this week will provide "host governments" with one-quarter of the state's take, which begins at 18 percent and eventually rises to 25 percent. No one really knows how much money that will be, since this is something new for this state. But some estimates put the state's cut from Western New York casinos at a minimum of $800 million over 14 years. That's an average of $57 million per year, with around $15 million of that to be doled out to the four city and county governments. But that's a best-case scenario.
How much will actually come to Buffalo and Erie County is impossible to determine. But a quarter of the state's take is not enough. The reason to put a casino here is not to benefit the state, but to bolster a long-struggling region. Instead, Albany wants to saddle us with a casino, then ride off with the cash.
This is a difficult time throughout New York, as the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spreads throughout our economy, including state government and many school districts. Albany is in severe need of new revenue and, since there can be no casino without Albany's leadership, the state clearly has a legitimate claim to a share of the proceeds.
But so does Buffalo, whose citizens will be generating casino profits. This city has been in dire financial condition for years while Albany raked in cash from Wall Street. The casino proposal represented a golden opportunity for the state to help this welfare city remake itself, as detailed in a far-sighted plan unveiled last month. All that was necessary was for Albany to make a commitment to this city by allowing Buffalo to keep a large share of the "found money" that would be produced here.
There was even room for a creative compromise here. Albany could have kept its entire cut for a specified period -- long enough to help it weather the current economic storm -- and then given Buffalo the share it deserves. Unfortunately, Albany was mainly concerned with addressing its short-term economic problems, and moved to ease them by dumping a casino in downtown Buffalo and running off with most of the money. It was, in a word, selfish.
The state, it should be said, was on the right track in refusing to allow the host governments simply to take their share and spend it at will. Both Buffalo and Niagara Falls have demonstrated all too well a gift for making large amounts of money disappear. Albany wants to ensure the money is spent in ways that improve the communities.
But its solution -- putting the state in charge of how the money will be spent -- is not the answer. The state should have agreed to create a new authority, along the lines of the locally controlled Battery Park City Authority that reinvigorated lower Manhattan. But Albany couldn't manage that either.
It is also fair to say that, although this legislation doesn't cut it for Buffalo, it is much better than it was, thanks mainly to the efforts of Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga. The agreement doubled the amount Pataki wanted to give to local governments, for example. In this case, though, better is not good enough.
The one ray of hope in this mess is that it can be improved. The language calls for a "minimum" share of 25 percent of the state's portion for host governments. That means it can grow. The possibility of creating a local economic development authority to oversee use of the revenues also remains open.
As rays of hope go, though, this is a dim one. Anyone who knows how Albany works knows that the chances that the Legislature will increase Buffalo's share is close to nonexistent. Albany wants this money and it wants to control how this region uses the money it does receive. The city and its citizens should make clear that they will not be a willing partner to this shakedown.
A casino will need many city approvals having to do with traffic, parking, water, sewer and so on. City officials should use them to persuade the state to give Buffalo a fair deal, or make clear that it's no deal.