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At stake in Casino hearings: $110M in revenue for NF, Salamanca and Buffalo

A three-member arbitration panel held hearings in New York City Wednesday and Thursday over whether the Seneca Nation of Indians is required to make any more casino revenue payments to New York State, which passes the money on to the cities of Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca.

It's not known when a decision will be issued, said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who confirmed Friday the sessions were held.

The Senecas say the original 2002 casino compact allowed them to stop paying 25 percent of the slot machine profits from their three Western New York casinos after 2016. The Nation hasn't paid anything since then.

The state contends the Senecas still are required to pay. The payments used to total about $110 million a year.

In late September, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised a $12.3 million bailout for the City of Niagara Falls, he called the money an "advance" on payments that would eventually be received from the Senecas.

Niagara Falls appropriated $10.1 million of the promised "advance" for 2019, accounting for about 11 percent of the city's 2019 budget.

Salamanca city officials, whose municipal budget also is heavily casino-dependent, said in September that the Cuomo administration has promised them a bailout if the Senecas aren't ordered to resume payment. Casino cash covered two-thirds of that city's $9 million budget before the cutoff.

Buffalo has lost out on $17 million in casino money since 2016. It used to bring in about $7 million a year, which this year would have been less than 1.7 percent of the city's $414 million general fund budget.

Whatever happens, the arbitration decision is likely to be made on a 2-1 vote, since each side chose one of the board's three members. The sides mutually agreed on the third member, whose name has never been publicly revealed.

The Senecas chose University of New Mexico law professor Kevin K. Washburn, a member of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation. He was Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs during President Barack Obama's second term.

The Cuomo administration appointed Henry B. Gutman, a New York City lawyer who represented the state during a 2013 casino revenue battle with the Senecas.

That dispute ended with a negotiated settlement, and Dyster said Friday this one also might.

"Arbitrators in general like to give parties an opportunity to come to a negotiated settlement after they've had a taste of the kinds of questions the panel is asking, handicapping the outcome," Dyster said.

Spokesmen for the state Division of the Budget and the Seneca Nation declined to comment on the matter Friday.

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