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Pataki urged to sign agreement on sharing casino revenues

Like ravenous lions fighting over a fresh steak, local politicians have battled for two years over the local share of the slot machine profits from the Seneca Niagara Casino.

Tuesday, the Niagara County Legislature let out a unanimous growl, calling on Gov. George E. Pataki to sign an agreement dividing the local share of casino revenues between the City of Niagara Falls and the county.

On Feb. 10, city officials made a similar demand in a news conference with Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls.

But Pataki's proposed state budget calls for giving all the money to USA Niagara, the state agency that he established and placed in charge of developing downtown Niagara Falls.

Like the local plan, worked out three months ago by DelMonte and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, Pataki's proposal would funnel part of the money to preferred local agencies, such as the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. and the planned new terminal at Niagara Falls International Airport.

But unlike the Maziarz-DelMonte plan, which took about 20 months to shape, Pataki's plan would provide no money for the city or county governments, the Niagara Falls School District or Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

"I think this is very blatant, that he doesn't want to work with us," said Legislator Sean J. O'Connor, D-Niagara Falls, who co-sponsored Tuesday's resolution with the other four lawmakers from the city. "We have to send a very strong message."

The county sued Niagara Falls last year, seeking to grab 75 percent of the nearly $12 million annual pie for itself. The case was thrown out of court, but the County Legislature voted to appeal that ruling. County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said Tuesday the appeal has not been filed yet.

Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, said his vote for O'Connor's resolution doesn't mean he's endorsing the plan put together by the two local state representatives.

"I believe the Maziarz-DelMonte plan is better than the one the governor brought forward, but I don't believe it's in the best interest of all the people of Niagara County," he told his colleagues.

After the meeting, Needler said that although the Maziarz-DelMonte plan would give the county 25 percent of the money, all would be earmarked for favored agencies, including the airport, the medical center and the Niagara Falls schools, leaving the county with nothing for itself.

"We've been going to court to get a better deal than that," he said.

Under the Maziarz-DelMonte proposal, the city would receive 75 percent of the money.

Because of the lack of agreement over allocating the money, the 2004 and 2005 payments are sitting in an escrow account in Albany.

Almost $24 million now is at stake. The Senecas will make a third payment later this year.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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