NIAGARA FALLS – The Seneca Niagara Casino in downtown Niagara Falls sits on sovereign land, which means that in addition to being able to offer gambling, the nation does not pay property taxes.
Who then foots the bill when Niagara Falls Police respond to calls at the casino?
It’s not the casino, Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said.
The department has provided the casino with free police protection for the past three years, DalPorto said, adding that Niagara Falls Police respond to calls at the casino between three to 10 times every day.
DalPorto said it would be difficult to put a number on what it costs the police department to handle calls at the casino. But he said to effectively police the casino, the department would need between six and 10 full-time officers for 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage. The cost for an individual officer’s salary, benefits and retirement averages about $125,000 per year, the chief said.
There once was a $17 million annual contract with New York State Police to pay for officers on the gaming floor at the casino, but state police walked away when the Seneca Nation stopped paying.
Seneca Niagara leaders declined to comment on the current status of negotiations with the state, but in a state public hearing in 2011, then Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter described “unsupported and exorbitant charges” by the state police. He said the nation denied paying these charges for years.
Now the costs falls on the shoulders of Niagara Falls Department, DalPorto said.
“They are essentially getting what they got from the state police – 17 officers and a supervisor – for free,” DalPorto said.
There is a State Police office in the casino, he said, doing background checks on employees and investigations for the gaming board. But they do not respond to calls.
“I’ve been banging that drum and fighting this battle for years ... I’ve gotten nowhere,” DalPorto said. “My personal opinion is that they have completely put us off, and they don’t want to pay the bill. They certainly are stakeholders in the downtown area, and the majority of police work in the downtown area is happening inside that casino, and we are tying up our cars inside that casino, which really isn’t even part of the city.”
The Niagara Falls Police Department has, like all other city departments, received casino money for equipment, but DalPorto noted that they are the only department asked to deal with the casino on a daily basis.
While the Seneca Niagara Casino does have private security in place, the security officers are not police officers, said DalPorto, which means making arrests and taking crime reports falls in the hands of the Niagara Falls Police.
DalPorto said he feels his force is obligated to respond to crimes in progress, but they do encourage victims of less serious crimes to come to the police department to make a report.
Councilman Kenneth Tompkins said the obligation to provide police protection as part of the state’s gaming compact with the Seneca Nation needs to be looked at.
“Once I get this out of the compact, the next step will be a resolution so that we can do something about this,” said Tompkins. “I will go to (Corporation Counsel) Craig Johnson and see what our options are.”
The discussion about police protection at the casino was prompted by the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board’s desire to have more police downtown during festivals.
DalPorto told the board that hiring new officers would cost the city more than $100,000 in pay and benefits for every new officer that is added. Giving officers overtime to work at festivals was not an option, said DalPorto.
“Just throwing money at it is not a fix. We’ve had so much going on this year in terms of overtime that they are really at their end. I can’t even get guys to fill overtime. The fix is more people,” said DalPorto.
After the meeting he said, “Five years ago there was overtime for a few special events, but now it’s every weekend – Thursday through Sunday is jampacked. It is a great problem to have. Niagara Falls is legitimately a tourism town and that tourism money could be used for hiring more officers downtown.”
He said festivals should be hiring at least two off-duty police officers if they expect a crowd of 2,000 people.
“If you are going to have an event, you should foot the bill for security and that should be part of the permitting process,” said DalPorto.
DalPorto said the Seneca Niagara Casino recently did pay for half of the costs for police protection at a recent outdoor concert. He said he hopes that is a sign that the casino will chip in more for police protection.
“They need to start footing the bill for the safety of their customers,” said DalPorto.