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Plenty of county casino money to go around – outside Niagara Falls

LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature spent $1.27 million in Seneca Niagara Casino revenue in 2015, but none of it went to Niagara Falls.

The county made quarterly payments to all the cities and towns that don’t have the word “Falls” in their names, for the stated purpose of lowering their municipal property taxes.

In addition, the legislators spread around $197,700 in payments to dozens of organizations from a “community development fund.”

Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, called it “pork spending for legislators,” but again, Niagara Falls was declared a no-pork zone as far as the Legislature’s ruling Republicans were concerned.

The stated reason was that Niagara Falls already receives its own share of casino money, about $20 million a year, so it doesn’t need any of the county’s cash.

But for months, GOP lawmakers contended, falsely, that state law barred them from giving the Falls any money even if they wanted to.

State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, went before the legislators early last year and told them they were wrong about that.

The problem allegedly resulted from a reading of the section of the State Finance Law that passed in 2014 and allowed payments from the casino profits to counties located within the part of the state where the new casino legislation gave the Seneca Nation exclusive casino rights.

That includes all of Western New York. But the law determined the amounts of payments by population, and it said that the population of any municipality that already was receiving casino money should not be counted when determining how much money the state was to distribute to those counties from its casino fund.

The Legislature Republicans insisted that barred them from giving any money to Niagara Falls. Virtuoso argued that there was no earmark for the use of the money and it could have been spent anywhere.

Virtuoso introduced a resolution to try to censure then-Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove for making false statements about the casino funding law, but that went nowhere.

“There’s no restrictions on it. I don’t know why the state did it that way,” Virtuoso said.

By coincidence, or maybe not, the only Democrats in the County Legislature are the four Niagara Falls members. The GOP has an 11-4 edge.

In December 2014, the Republicans passed a measure that called for 75 percent of the county’s casino revenue to be distributed among the non-Niagara Falls municipalities. The other 25 percent went into the community development fund.

In practice, the Legislature paid some money to practically any organization that asked for it, from the YWCA of Niagara to the mermaid parade scheduled for June 18 in Olcott.

“We’ve have always placed economic development at the heart of our plans,” said Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda.

He sponsored 17 resolutions to make casino payments to Lumber City groups and programs, out of the 64 that were introduced overall. Of the 64, 58 were passed, and most of those that weren’t passed were revised and passed on the second try.

“That money should be used for all the taxpayers of Niagara County, and we should be using it to reduce our debt,” Virtuoso said. “A thousand here, $500 there to this little club and that little club, that’s not doing anything for the taxpayers.”

Bradt replied, “Community theater, good parks, charming business districts, helping the YWCA. I stand by economic development and what I and my fellow legislators have been able to do. We’re trying to make it a better community.”

The resolutions generally drew little public or media attention amid the welter of other Legislature business. One of the exceptions was the $10,000 grant to North Tonawanda’s Niagara River Yacht Club. It was cited by members of the Civil Service Employees Association, who picketed meetings during the last few months of the year in protest over the lack of a new contract, as an example of county priorities with which they disagreed. A tentative deal with the white-collar union was hammered out in December.

When the county had casino revenue in previous years, it used the money in dribs and drabs all over the county, but at that time all legislators were allowed to choose recipients, including those from Niagara Falls. At the time, the GOP-led majority caucus included adherents from the Falls.

The cash was cut off in 2009, when then-Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, a Lewiston Democrat, pushed through a bill to stop the payments.

The question of whether the county should have any casino money is as old as the casino itself.

In 2005, the county went to court to try to obtain 75 percent of the local share, on the theory that 75 percent of the county’s population lives outside Niagara Falls. The suit was dismissed as premature because no state law splitting up the money had been passed yet.

In 2006, a law based on negotiations between DelMonte and then-State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, gave Niagara Falls 75 percent of the local share. Most of the rest was allocated to other Niagara Falls-based organizations, but those amounts were limited, and the county was to receive any amount that exceeded the caps. The county was paid $976,000 before DelMonte and State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson, who then represented the Falls, put a stop to it.

The Legislature voted to sue to overturn the DelMonte-Thompson law, but the suit never was filed, despite the spending of $47,820 in legal fees with Phillips Lytle, a Buffalo law firm that often contributed to Maziarz’s campaigns.

Since the exclusivity zone checks started arriving in the summer of 2014, the county has received more than $1.43 million, according to a report from County Treasurer Kyle R. Andrews. Payments to cities and towns outside Niagara Falls have totaled more than $1.07 million, with the remainder, $358,321, being swept into the “community development fund.”

Those figures represent the total of six quarterly payments, but there is a time lag, and Andrews said the county has yet to receive money from the state for casino profits earned in the second half of 2015.

In the 2016 budget, the Legislature included $300,000 in casino payments to the municipalities. The other money – Andrews said it might be another $600,000, based on the receipts from last year – is undesignated.

Virtuoso said as things currently stand, that $600,000 in anticipated revenue is a sort of county tax relief. It remains to be seen if it will be appropriated for something else.

“We could have had a zero percent tax (levy) increase if we had played our cards right,” Virtuoso said. “But because they want to spread out their pork, it’s a political game, and it’s hurting the taxpayers.”

Instead, there was a 1.77 percent levy increase, but Bradt joined the four Democrats in voting no.

As for the use of the casino money, Bradt said, “We have money, not to spread it around, but to give it to worthy causes.”