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City rejects Senecas' plan for panel on casino funds

The City Council has rejected a proposal from the Seneca Nation of Indians to form a joint development commission to decide how casino money is used by the city.

Mayor Jeffrey L. Pond said Tuesday night that the Council met Dec. 13 with Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter and tribal councillors. The commission, he added, is Porter's proposal, for a panel of eight members -- four from the city and four from the Seneca Nation -- which would oversee distribution of casino money in the city.

A similar commission was formed here after the Senecas' 1990 land leases were renewed. But it fell by the wayside after Maurice John became Seneca president two terms ago and refused to provide financial support for the venture.

A Main Street park was one successful venture that emerged from the commission. After the Senecas stopped the funding, the city continued to put away $1,000 a year from casino revenue, Pond said.

Porter, describing the latest proposal, suggested joint ventures such as improvements to the water system, roads, bridges and snow removal, police and fire services, tourism and economic development.

Porter pointed to separate water and sewage systems for the Senecas and the city.

"How much money are we wasting by maintaining two separate systems when it is possible to provide the same measure of services by one system?" he said.

When the Senecas opened the casino, the city spent nearly $10 million to upgrade its water and sewage systems to meet the casino's needs.

Earlier this year, the Senecas built their own water and sewage facilities at a cost of about $50 million to serve the casino and nearby neighborhoods.

When the Senecas stopped casino revenue payments to the state in August, the city was left with about 50 percent of its revenue and had to lay off nearly 50 employees. The city also was unable to meet bond payments on the money borrowed to upgrade the water and sewage facilities and had to raise water and sewer rates.

As of Dec. 1, each residential customer of the city's Board of Public Utilities was billed an additional $30 to raise money for the bond payments.

Pond said during the Council meeting that the city will prepare its own version of a joint venture agreement. "Our job is to protect the city residents, and we want to continue to work on developing a joint commission. We are going to do what's best for us," he said. "But I have a hard time seeing us come to any type of agreement [with the Senecas]."

City officials were critical of giving employment preference to Senecas. "We couldn't do that," Pond said. "We have to follow the laws of New York State and civil service."

The Senecas also proposed no further development off the Allegany Reservation. The reservantion includes most of the city. Pond said the surrounding area adds to the city's tax base and includes a proposal for a water park, off the reservation, on the South Side.

The city is due to receive about $10 million from 2009 and 2010. "We are in favor of a joint development commission," Pond said, "but their proposal is unacceptable. We will be making a counterproposal that will protect our citizens."

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