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Niagara legislators expected to appeal casino ruling

The Niagara County Legislature is expected to vote Tuesday to appeal a court decision denying the county the right to sue for a share of Seneca Niagara Casino revenue.

On Sept. 1, State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III ruled that the county lacks standing to sue because no agreement has been reached on distributing the casino money. Once a distribution formula is established, the county could sue if it's not included, the judge wrote.

That didn't suit the County Legislature's Republican-led majority caucus, which sued to try to take 75 percent of the casino money. Last year, the entire $9.5 million went to the City of Niagara Falls or projects connected with the city.

This year, because of the lawsuit and a failure by two state lawmakers to agree on a distribution formula, none of the $11.2 million local share has been distributed.

Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls, and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, have been empowered to make a deal that State Legislature leaders and Gov. George E. Pataki can approve. So far, they have not been able to agree.

But County Legislature Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, said Boniello's ruling ducked what he called "the main question": whether Niagara County is entitled to a cut of the profits.

The resolution to appeal Boniello's decision would appropriate another $20,000 for legal fees. Figures on how much attorney Michael B. Powers and his associates at the Buffalo firm of Phillips Lytle have been paid so far were unavailable last week.

In early August, the figure stood at $18,300, but it is believed to have grown substantially as the county received additional bills. Powers charges $310 an hour.

As an alternative to the appeal, the Legislature's Democratic minority is offering a resolution Tuesday, asking the state to give the county 25 percent of the state share of casino profits. The casino paid the state $44.8 million for last year.

At the Democrats' behest, the Legislature voted earlier this year to sue the state, but the suit never was filed. No one decided how much to seek in such a suit, explained Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.

"I think it's more appropriate to ask before we sue," he said.

Needler said the county most recently had offered to split the local share with Niagara Falls at 65 percent for the city, 35 percent for the county.

The city was to pay the Niagara Falls School District and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center out of its share; the county would pay the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which would use the funds for improvements at Niagara Falls International Airport.

Needler said Maziarz is working on a formula of 75 percent for the city, 25 percent for the county. Funding for all four special entities would come out of the county's share, with each receiving $500,000 to $600,000 each.

Any funds left in the county's share would go to the county Industrial Development Agency for economic development projects.

DelMonte, however, had vowed that "No funding would go to the county as long as a lawsuit is outstanding." But she has said she would be willing to compensate the county for property taxes lost when the Senecas took over Niagara Falls' downtown core.

Maziarz said the two also disagree over how long any agreement should last. He wants it to remain in effect for 13 years, until the Senecas' casino compact with the state expires. DelMonte wants agreement that would cover only the idle money from last year and payments from this year's profits.
e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com1

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