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Partisan battle on tap in Niagara County Legislature over allocation of casino revenue to Falls

LOCKPORT – Democrats in the Niagara County Legislature have decided to go to the mat over Republican contentions that state law prohibits them from sending any of the county’s share of Seneca Niagara Casino revenue to the City of Niagara Falls.

Democrats seek to censure Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, for making “inaccurate and deceptive” statements about the issue Dec. 9, the night that the Legislature adopted the 2015 budget.

Although the casino money started flowing to the county last summer, the Republican majority didn’t mention that fact until budget night, when they passed a measure on a party-line vote that created two funds to be used for the casino cash.

Three-quarters of the county’s estimated $1 million per year in casino revenue was to go into a fund that would be divided among municipalities to provide tax relief. The other 25 percent was to be used for local projects as the Legislature saw fit.

However, neither fund was to allow any spending in Niagara Falls. Updegrove contended that terms of the state law ending the cutoff of casino revenue to the county forbade the money from going to the Falls because the city has its own allocation of casino cash.

That turns out to be untrue, according to two Republican state lawmakers. State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, told the Legislature in person last month that Niagara Falls was not barred from receiving the casino money, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, said the same thing.

“Before I did the vote, I asked my attorneys in Albany. They told me Niagara County can do whatever they want with the money,” Ceretto confirmed in a telephone interview last week. “There’s no restrictions on how they spend it … to spend where or what.”

Updegrove said he will have plenty to say about the matter Tuesday. His comment for the time being was, “The Niagara County Democrats continue to pick the pockets of Lockport, the Town of Niagara and other municipalities. I’m uncomfortable addressing the failed policies and leadership in Niagara Falls without the legislators in the room.”

“He’s an attorney. He misrepresented the law,” Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said of Updegrove. “The county attorney didn’t sign off on the (Dec. 9) resolution, if you notice.”

Besides the censure resolution against Updegrove, the Democrats are offering a second resolution to repeal the ban on county casino cash for Niagara Falls.

“How do you distribute all this money to every municipality except one?” Virtuoso asked. “That’s not fair. It’s a slap in the face.”

The dispute is over one paragraph on Page 67 of the 111-page Upstate New York Gaming and Economic Development Act, signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on July 30, 2013. The main point of the law was to allow Native American casinos in areas outside Western New York. The law gave the Seneca Nation a casino “exclusivity zone” in Western New York to protect its casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca.

The controversial paragraph set up a casino cash allocation to county governments in the exclusivity zone that weren’t already receiving such revenue. “Such distribution shall be made among such counties on a per capita basis, excluding the population of any municipality that receives a distribution pursuant to subdivision three of this section,” the law says.

Niagara Falls receives its share under the terms of Subdivision 3. The Republicans believed – or, as the Democrats would have it, professed to believe – that the paragraph barred spending the money in Niagara Falls.

Its other possible meaning may be that Niagara Falls’ population is not to be counted on Niagara County’s behalf when counties receive their share of the casino money based on population.

“The Republicans are using casino funds trying to score political points,” County Democratic Chairman Nicholas J. Forster said in a news release. “Instead of working to help the towns, villages and cities in the county, they are trying to pit one community against another and retaliating against Democrats who questioned the way the funds will be distributed.”