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Ortt proposes giving more casino revenues to Niagara Falls

State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, unveiled a bill on Tuesday that would give the City of Niagara Falls, rather than the State of New York, the largest share of revenues from casino slot machines in Niagara Falls.

Ortt’s proposal would flip the current formula: The City of Niagara Falls would receive a 75 percent share of slot machine revenues and the state would receive 25 percent to divvy up among the stakeholders.

“It’s a huge flip, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Ortt.

Ortt said Tuesday that, with a current budget surplus in the state, his goal is to first attempt to negotiate the change as part of budget discussions. If that doesn’t work, the next step would be to introduce a bill in the State Senate to amend State Law 99-h, which outlines the casino funding formula.

He sees a sense of urgency in the issue because the 99-h law, which has been in place for 10 years, expires at the end of this year.

“When you look at the city’s own financial advisory board, the city is burning through casino cash and they are going to have to make some serious decisions regardless, but there is also a shrinking pot of casino revenues,” said Ortt.

He noted that one major competitor for Seneca Casino cash is the state itself, which has approved new state-sanctioned casinos.

“It’s very clear that we have lost revenue due to the expansion of gaming in New York State, which has impacted our bottom line in Niagara Falls,” said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. He said local officials have undertaken their own efforts to increase the city’s share of casino revenues.

However, the stakeholders disagree with stipulations on how that new money would be spent if Niagara Falls is allowed to take a 75 percent share of the slot revenue.

Ortt said an important part of his plan would be to create a fund for economic development and job creation, similar to what is going on in Buffalo with Canalside and the Outer Harbor developments.

He said a lot of those developments have been overseen by groups outside of City Hall.

If approved, the amended law would set aside 40 percent for economic development and job creation. A nine-member economic development advisory group would be appointed to allocate funds and incentives to current and new businesses in Niagara Falls.

“I’m not just suggesting more money be put in the City of Niagara Falls general fund,” said Ortt. “The intent of the money is to change the trajectory of the City of Niagara Falls and I don’t know if you can say that has happened the way people envisioned 10 or 12 years ago.”

Dyster bristled at the idea of the state stepping in to regulate how the money is spent.

“We believe very strongly that decisions of how to use the city’s share of casino revenue should be made by officials elected by citizens of Niagara Falls. Local people here don’t want Albany deciding how to spend their dollars,” said Dyster.

He said the city has funded projects for various stakeholders and made wise use of casino funds for infrastructure and economic development.

Ortt announced the proposal to flip the formula in his “Revitalize Niagara” program in November with the goal to ensure that, as the host city, Niagara Falls and certain entities would get their “fair share” of casino revenues.

Ortt said he is unsure how much support there is for this measure outside of Western New York, but said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has talked about development in upstate New York and knows the challenges Niagara Falls faces.

“This would certainly be something big and bold for Niagara Falls,” said Ortt.

Ortt said in his plan that everybody would win, including the school district and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, which would get more money, plus Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Niagara Falls Housing Authority, the Aquarium of Niagara, Mount St. Mary’s Neighborhood Health Center and the WNY First Response and Preparedness Center.