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CASINO DEAL SHORTCHANGES BUFFALO, SAY LAWMAKERS

Buffalo lawmakers are branding the state's casino plan a "shameful" deal that would shortchange the cash-strapped city, and they want Gov. George E. Pataki -- who is to sign the casino legislation today in Niagara Falls -- to attend a meeting to discuss the financial arrangements.

A majority of Common Council members Tuesday expressed grave concerns about the state's formula for splitting gambling revenues as part of an agreement that would bring three Seneca-owned casinos to Western New York. The deal struck in Albany last week would provide "host governments" with one-quarter of the state's take, which begins at 18 percent and eventually rises to 25 percent.

Lawmakers said that when one does the math, the formula would leave Buffalo with about 6 percent of overall casino revenues.

"I think it's shameful," said Majority Leader Rosemarie LoTempio. "Give us the entire 25 percent. Then we can stop going to the state on our knees."

LoTempio was referring to criticism that the city is overreliant on assistance from Albany. The state provides about 60 percent of all revenues for the city and its school district.

Delaware Council Member Marc A. Coppola said he doesn't think city officials were given input when the sweeping gambling agreement was being forged.

"I'm against the deal. I don't like it," Coppola said, adding that by the time one tallies the costs the city could incur for accommodating a casino, it could become a break-even proposition.

Other lawmakers criticizing the deal included Council President James W. Pitts, Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson and Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana.

"This was a casino deal-by-press-release," said Fontana.

Barbara A. Miller-Williams of the Ellicott District voiced concerns about location issues. She said one frequently cited plan calls for the facility to be located in the Statler Towers.

"Why even give consideration to a casino in the heart of the business district?" Miller-Williams asked, claiming a waterfront site would make more sense.

Virtually all Council members have some questions about the proposal, South Council Member Mary M. Martino said following Tuesday's discussion.

"We all have some problems with this deal. We need much more information, and we need to have our concerns addressed," Martino said.

Corporation Counsel Michael B. Risman, the city's top legal expert, said without Council backing, building a casino in Buffalo could be a difficult task. The Common Council has no authority to shape the final casino compact, but lawmakers would likely be asked to approve a number of casino-related items.

These would include infrastructure improvements, traffic changes, plans to provide security or other special services in the casino's vicinity, or other proposals involving city funds.

"Essentially, many things couldn't be done without getting the Common Council's approval," said Risman.

Pitts instructed staffers to send a letter to Pataki asking him to meet with the Council.

The governor, using the falls, one of his favorite Western New York photo opportunities, as a backdrop, will sign the measure this afternoon before flying on to the Catskills, also in line for three casinos, for a ceremony there.

The legislation permits Pataki to enter into a final compact, a highly detailed written agreement, with the leaders of the Seneca Nation of Indians, which will own the three casinos planned for the region. One casino is planned for downtown Niagara Falls, another for Buffalo, and the third would be on one of the Senecas' two reservations.

The casino provision, approved last week by the State Legislature, was included in a sweeping package of new gambling initiatives, which also includes permission for most New York racetracks to begin offering slotlike machines known as video lottery terminals, and for the state to enter into a multistate, high-stakes lottery game known as Powerball.

Pataki has desperately wanted the casino measure, he said, to bring jobs to the region's stagnant economy. But he also views it as a way to shore up support as he ponders a run for a third term next year; conservative and religious leaders, however, have said it will cost him more votes than he will win by backing the controversial gambling package.

The casino measure, beyond holding political possibilities for the governor, also will be a financial windfall for the state budget. Officials believe the three Western New York casinos will bring in be worthat least $1 billion in revenue over the next 14 years from a provision that gives New York 25 percent of the Senecas' slot machine revenues.

One or more lawsuits could be filed as early as this week, challenging the constitutionality of the gambling package on several legal fronts. Also, the federal government must still approve the casino deal. And the Seneca people themselves still must give their up or down vote in a referendum; no date has been set for that vote.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com
and tprecious@buffnews.com

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