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Falls deserves the cash from Seneca casino

If anyone still didn't know it, the dispute between the state of New York and the Seneca Nation of Indians has real and potentially hazardous consequences.

With the Seneca Gaming Corp. withholding payments to the state because of a dispute over racetrack casinos, the City of Niagara Falls has been deprived of more than $60 million - and counting - in revenue it was supposed to have received because the Seneca Niagara Casino was built within its borders.

Now the city is under severe financial pressure, so much that Mayor Paul A. Dyster declared last week that he would order a halt in fire service to the casino before he lays off any firefighters. His frustration is understandable but, in truth, neither option is tolerable. The state and the Senecas need to sort this out, and Niagara Falls needs to get the money it is due.

Two main points justified putting a Seneca casino in Niagara Falls. One was that, with a casino just across the river in Niagara Falls, Ont., Western New Yorkers were already gambling. It made sense to keep some of the money here.

The other was for the state and the city to share in the profits to cover the expenses of hosting a casino, even if it was on sovereign land that had been transferred to the Senecas. That part of the equation has failed, as the Senecas have claimed, plausibly, that the state has violated the compact by allowing gambling within its zone of exclusivity, specifically at the Hamburg and Batavia slot parlors it bills as casinos. As a result, the Seneca Nation is withholding the payments called for under the compact.

The state is betting that it can make much more money from the two slot parlors and, eventually, full-blown casinos if the state Constitution is amended than it does from the Senecas. That's fine for the state, but it leaves Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo with nothing in return for hosting Seneca casinos. Now, Niagara Falls is facing a cash shortfall that could reach $21 million before the year ends, and while Dyster said the city will continue to provide fire services to the casino for now, he won't guarantee it for next year, when the city may be operating under a "disaster budget."

"I hope it doesn't come to that," Dyster said, "but I feel as though the City of Niagara Falls has been victimized through no fault of its own."

It was clear from his remarks that Dyster blames the Senecas for withholding payments, but it is not at all clear that the nation is out of line. If, indeed, the state is violating the compact, then the Senecas are within their rights to refuse to make the payments.

Dyster is right on the money, though, in observing that his city is being made the victim of a squabble in which it has no influence, only responsibilities, firefighting being just one of them.

At one time, the Senecas volunteered to give the city the money it was owed, instead of filtering it through Albany, but the state refused. Later, the Senecas backed away from that idea as well.

But the solution cannot be to push Niagara Falls and its taxpayers into the ditch. One way or another, the city needs to be made whole with the state forking over the money. If the state prevails in its dispute with the Senecas, it will get its money back. If it loses, then it is Albany's fault the city didn't get paid and the state should be on the hook.

If Albany and the Senecas want to gamble, it should be with their money, not Niagara Falls'.