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Senecas 'ready for arbitration' over dispute with state on casino profits

The leader of the Seneca Nation says he is ready to go to arbitration over the nation's dispute with New York State on sharing casino profits.

The Nation maintains that under the terms of its casino compact with the state, no further payments are required.

"Ignoring the facts and running from the facts do not change the facts," Seneca President Todd Gates told The Buffalo News. "The Seneca Nation has complied with the compact. New York State has not. We are ready for arbitration."

His comments follow Andrew M. Cuomo's visit Thursday to Niagara Falls, where the governor  said the Seneca Nation wants to reduce the share of casino profits paid to the state.  Lawyers for the state filed a demand for arbitration last week.

"It is truly unfortunate and unhelpful that the governor has decided to escalate his rhetoric in the media, while refusing to meet with us face to face for nearly six months," Gates said.

"The Seneca Nation has honored the terms of the compact for 15 years," Gates said in a written statement. "We have done this despite the state's history of compact violations and ignoring the needs of the Seneca Nation."

The arbitration provisions in the compact call for each side to choose one arbitrator and for those two to agree on a third person to join the panel. The results of the arbitration are binding, and the compact says no monetary damages can be assessed for any violations found.

"I want a speedy resolution. I'm very much a get-it-done kind of person. Figure it out, fix it, move on," Cuomo said in Niagara Falls. "I'm accustomed to disputes all across the state on every level, so my goal is to figure it out and get everything moving again."

Cuomo continued his criticism of Seneca leaders Thursday.

"We see no desire on their part to live up to the agreement," Cuomo told reporters in Niagara Falls.

Both sides have accused the other of not following the terms of the 2002 compact that allowed the Senecas to open successful casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. In return for exclusive rights to operate the Las Vegas-style casinos in Western New York, the Seneca Nation agreed in 2002 to pay the state 25 percent of slot machine revenues on an annual basis. Over the years, that has translated to over $1.4 billion in payments to Albany, which today shares a portion of the Seneca casino proceeds with local governments, as well as at least one hospital and several school districts in a 16-county region.

The Seneca Nation says the compact includes a payment structure that extended through the first 14 years of the compact. After that, the Senecas maintain, no more money is owed to the state.  In March, Seneca leaders notified the state that the nation was ending all payments as of March 31.

"They want to modify the agreement and they would seek to reduce the amount of money they pay, and we're not prepared to do that, and that's why we're going to arbitration," Cuomo said.

A Seneca spokesman said the last time Gates and Cuomo spoke was in a telephone call in March.

"The Seneca Nation will continue to take the high ground, not only because we have the facts on our side but also because it's the right thing to do," Gates said. "It is becoming increasingly clear, from the governor's pattern of asking for, then canceling meetings, he does not want to have a serious discussion. He would rather talk to the media and impugn the people of the Seneca Nation."

"There have been a number of conversations. I've had conversations with them personally. We've had conversation lawyer to lawyer, staff to staff, friend to friend. I've spoken to the leader," Cuomo said.

"The Senecas want to reduce the payments, which I understand. People don't want to pay. I get it. But we have an agreement," Cuomo said.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster is supposed to submit a 2018 budget proposal to the City Council by Oct. 1, in the face of the possible cutoff of casino cash.

"Obviously, it creates a major hardship," Dyster said. "We have to walk a fine line here, because we want to budget only revenues that we realistically expect to obtain during the year in question. We assert, as does the State of New York, our right to receive our legitimate share of the Seneca revenues. They are still collecting money in the slot machines, and we don't want to somehow give the signal that we don't think that a share of the money they've collected rightfully belongs to us."

Asked if he will seek special state aid to help balance the budget, Dyster answered, "I think we're going to be explaining to the state the situation that we're in."

In the meantime, he hopes for a settlement.

"I was encouraged that the governor said that he felt the state's position, which of course the city supports, is a very strong position, but I was also encouraged that he said we want to figure this out, that there's still an opportunity for a negotiated settlement," Dyster said.

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