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Waiting for share of casino revenue tests city's patience

Frustration is taking hold with some city residents and elected officials as they continue waiting for a local share of casino slots revenues.

The earmarked local revenues from 2004 and 2005 total $25 million and have long since been handed over to the state by the Seneca Nation, which operates the Seneca Niagara Casino.

The money remains the subject of an ongoing political stalemate over who will allocate the money.

A November proposal by Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls, and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane -- who spent more than a year battling their way to an agreement on how to divide the money -- would send the local share to the city to be disbursed.

In contrast, Gov. George E. Pataki's proposed 2006 budget would channel the local casino revenues from 2004, 2005 and 2006 to USA Niagara Development Corp., the state's development agency in the city.

The two plans include several of the same recipients, such as the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., Niagara Falls International Airport and city government, which plans to use much of the money for city improvements.

Both plans would put money toward economic development, as called for by the law that created the compact with the Seneca Nation of Indians.

However, the governor's proposal puts more of an emphasis on downtown projects such as the Niagara Experience Center, while the DelMonte-Maziarz plan would fund school and hospital projects.

Pataki spokesman Saleem Cheeks said the governor's proposal would "attract real economic development projects and create new jobs and opportunities for the area . . . not more political pork spending."

City officials say supporting the hospital and school will help create more jobs and support quality of life in the city. Mayor Vince Anello is offended at the state's refusal to funnel the money straight to the city, where the casino is located.

"Somewhere along the way, the executive branch has lost the meaning of local share," DelMonte said last week.

She said the Assembly and Senate filed a resolution last week to reject the part of Pataki's budget that sends the money to USA Niagara.

She said Pataki will likely veto the resolution, but she expects it will easily be overridden.

Meanwhile, people in Niagara Falls are getting frustrated.

One resident's suggestion of blockading the casino was applauded during a recent Council meeting. Anello and others have said they may picket and protest at Niagara Falls State Park to get the state's attention.

A large sign at Sal Maglie Stadium on Hyde Park Boulevard reads, "Governor, Where is our casino money?"

City Councilman Chris A. Robins said he has seen a marked change in residents lately.

"It's a good sign that people are getting frustrated," he said. "If you said that [we should blockade the casino] two months ago, I would have laughed, but now . . ."

Sam P. Fasciano, a city firefighter, attended the same Council meeting and suggested charging the state for any land it has ever taken from the city, like roads, parking lots and parks.

The Falls resident said one reason people here are so adamantly against the revenues going to a state agency is the idea: "When I pick up my paycheck, it's none of their business what I do with it."

He said USA Niagara is viewed as "a good entity," but if the revenues are directed there instead of to the city, it will be "just another layer of bureaucracy."

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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