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Pataki pressured to turn over slots money

State and local representatives continued to turn up the heat on Gov. George E. Pataki on Friday with the second rally in a week demanding that he free up the local share of slots revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino.

"We're all struggling upstate," state Sen. Marc A. Coppola, D-Buffalo, said during the latest rally. "The casinos were supposed to benefit financially those struggling communities. Now the governor has gotten his money, yet he doesn't want to give the local community that's struggling their money."

Coppola, who represents Niagara Falls and Buffalo, was among several politicians who looked to whip up a crowd of about 150 who stood in the evening chill at Falls Street and John B. Daly Boulevard. He warned that Buffalo could face a similar fate after a proposed casino opens there.

The crowd shivered in the shadow of the casino and within blocks of a large, blighted tract of city land marred by cracked streets and sidewalks, boarded-up homes and vacant lots.

Politicians vowed that street work and neighborhood revitalization would be among the ways the casino money would be used.

Mayor Vince Anello and Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, both Falls Democrats, implored Pataki to end a nearly two-year impasse in Albany that has blocked $24 million in 2004 and 2005 local slots revenues from being spent -- or even allocated. Three times that much in Seneca Niagara slots revenue already has been poured into the state's general fund.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz of Newfane -- like Pataki, a Republican -- also urged the governor to act.

"I realize that there have always been concerns," Maziarz said. "I had concerns that this money would end up in the general fund, in some black hole." But, he said, a memorandum of understanding he and DelMonte finalized in November "assures this will not happen."

Pataki is unhappy with the document, which would send most of the money to the city to allocate, and includes large sums for local schools and a hospital, projects the Pataki administration believes fall outside the bounds of the state's compact with the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Local casino revenue is to be used for economic development and job creation projects, gambling addiction programs and to reimburse the city for costs incurred as a direct result of the casino.

The governor has included in his proposed 2006 budget that local casino revenues from 2004-2006 -- estimated at nearly $35 million -- should be directed to the state's economic development agency in the Falls, USA Niagara Development Corp., to be disbursed mostly for downtown development projects, including the proposed Niagara Experience Center and an entertainment district.

Pataki issued a statement Friday evening that read, in part, "The Governor understands the desire to have the casino revenue made available as soon as possible, and the plan he advanced would have provided these much needed funds over two years ago, helping to create new jobs, attract private sector investment, and expand the tax base, allowing the City to make the long-term investments in the services important to the residents of Niagara Falls."

His office also said the state has invested more than $90 million in noncasino money in the Falls during the last five years.

Trudy Christman, president of the Black Creek Block Club in LaSalle, said the city needs money for projects that both the governor and local leaders desire. She held a sign at Friday's rally that read, "We want our fair share."

"There isn't one thing that's more important than the other," Christman said, "and one thing leads to another. They're all linked. They're all important."

Local neighborhood activist Norma Higgs, who also attended the rally, said, "Everybody has their own favorite project. We the residents want the money to go to fix our city. It's dying."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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