Fruscione Set to Pull Plug on NTCC
County lawmakers were buzzing at last week’s meeting of the County Legislature, and the CEO of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. looked positively gut-shot when the leader of the County Legislature’s Republican majority read out loud a letter from Democrat Niagara Falls Councilman Samuel Fruscione that puts the tourism agency’s future in limbo.
Fruscione’s letter stated unequivocally, “The appropriate time has come for our city to wish the NTCC well while ending the possibility of future financial support.”
This is the latest wrinkle in the NTCC’s ongoing saga, which saw the county government’s Republican supermajority refuse to extend the NTCC beyond next year unless the tourism agency hands over financial records on everything from income sources, to its salaries, benefits and bonuses, to — most importantly — a full accounting of reimbursements to employees, including high-living CEO John Percy.
Sources close to the tourism promotion agency say that Percy had been, in the words of one, “strutting around like the cat who swallowed a canary or whatever,” ever since the Senecas and Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached accord on an extension of the gaming compact that provides millions of dollars to the NTCC.
Percy’s demeanor changed noticeably during last week’s meeting of the County Legislature, where county lawmakers took up a resolution that only extended the agency’s contract by 12 months — far less than the NTCC’s demands for an extension until the year 2028 — and Majority Leader Rick Updegrove of Lockport read the letter from Fruscione into the record.
Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker, a strong Updegrove ally, was also on hand at the meeting offering his assessment of the NTCC’s performance.
“The fundamental problem is a near-total lack of communication since John [Percy] began running the NTCC in June of 2006,” Tucker told county lawmakers.
Tucker’s remarks echoed a main complaint in Fruscione’s letter. “The NTCC has provided operational information to the city in the past, but only after great effort on our part and needless drama on their part,” Fruscione wrote.
Fruscione also blasted the NTCC’s legendary secretiveness, noting its revenues are nearly all derived from public money.
“The fact is that the NTCC has secured the best of both worlds for their organization: they survive on public dollars while claiming the confidentiality of a private organization,” Fruscione wrote. “This…is clearly unacceptable and should never have been tolerated over the past  years.”
Percy’s actions suggest he intended the Tuesday night meeting to turn into a fiasco for county legislators who refused to accede to his wishes, as he brought approximately 10 NTCC supporters in tow to criticize the county government for daring to refuse to continue to provide him with public money, primarily generated from bed tax collections.
Most of the speakers who came to criticize the county government were tourism operators who also happen to sit on the NTCC’s board, such as Old Fort Niagara Executive Director Robert Emerson, or hoteliers like Galeb Rizek, whose family owns Comfort Inn and Econo Lodge franchises in the city.
It should be noted that, even as Emerson and Rizek criticized county lawmakers for failing to give in to NTCC demands, both have benefited from past largesse by the county government.
Emerson has received countless gifts, courtesy of county taxpayers, including tens of thousands of dollars from the county’s former cut of the Seneca Niagara Casino’s slot machine revenues, and his wife, County Historian Catherine Emerson, receives a regular paycheck from the county government.
Rizek, meanwhile, represents a family that has received substantial lucrative tax breaks from the county industrial development agency for its hotel properties.
Those past good deeds by county taxpayers were forgotten Tuesday as the duo railed against county lawmakers for refusing to meet Percy’s demands without a full accounting off NTCC income and expenditures.
Despite that, the mood in the room noticeably changed when Updegrove introduced Fruscione’s letter.
“At this time [the long-term contract between the city and the NTCC] has expired. The City Council majority — council members [Robert] Anderson and [Glenn] Choolokian joining me — will be recommending that the city end its support of the NTCC,” Fruscione wrote.
In his letter, Fruscione focused on, what has been for many local leaders, the crux of problems with the NTCC, namely its supporters’ alleged efforts to marginalize critics: “I was frequently and regularly criticized in the past for demanding more accountability for this agency. It now appears that other individuals have come to share my belief that the NTCC should have been held to a higher level of accountability from day one.”
The Seneca casino dollars put Percy on stronger ground than he’s been on in some time, financially, but with the County Legislature’s Republican majority, the Niagara Falls City Council’s Democratic majority and Lockport’s mayor all aligned against him and his agency, his latest theatrics may have backfired.
The county government has given Percy 12 months to make a case that he isn’t just using the NTCC as a personal travel agency and can demonstrate “verifiable and quantifiable” results, in Updegrove’s words.
As North Tonawanda Legislator Paul Wojtaszek, who as Updegrove’s principal deputy in the Majority Caucus drafted the county’s resolution limiting the NTCC’s contract renewal to 12 months, told us, “Our goal here isn’t to micromanage the NTCC. We still believe in the process that led to its creation and we believe tourism is extremely important to our region. But the NTCC is spending public money and has never demonstrated it gets any return on that investment of the public’s dollars.”
“That has to change, or we have to look at a full range of options,” Wojtaszek said.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
JUN 25, 2013