City's Financial Prognosis Getting Bleak
By Glenn Choolokian
About $13 million is what will remain after the city receives an anticipated $70 million in casino revenue and pays its bills.
That $13 million is how much casino cash will remain of the original $70 million after the city: pays its annual debt, repays the general fund, pays $3 million toward the train station and pays what is owed to the NTCC, Memorial Medical Center, Niagara Falls School District, Niagara Falls International Airport, and the Underground Railroad Commission.
It's critical that we get these figures out in the open in order to take a realistic look at what the city will face when the State/Seneca Nation arbitration concludes.
Receiving the $70 million would be the good news.
While that would be the good news there are two other possible outcomes that aren't so good: The city could receive only a portion of the casino cash, or the city could receive zero casino cash.
So, what if we receive only a portion or absolute zero?
To say a zero-dollar settlement would create a disaster 2014 budget would be putting it mildly.
A zero settlement would mean disaster budgets well beyond 2014 that would leave the city struggling to pay for services and cover its annual debt (much of that debt tied to the 30-year mortgage of the municipal building). Bankruptcy could become a possibility.
And, what if we receive the $70 million? How would we use the $13 million remainder and how should we use the $13 million remainder? Should and would are two different things.
Many of our streets need paving and rebuilding and we have an annual debt on the municipal building that will drain our budget for more than the next two decades. It's been suggested that we dedicate all of our casino revenue to the municipal building mortgage. Paying it off is a great idea but the numbers just aren't going to come together for us to make that possible.
We owe too much on the building and we have too many city-wide obligations.
Mayor Paul Dyster has pushed for a city-owned train station that is scheduled to come on line in 2015. It will bring with it significant annual costs in operation and maintenance. I'm not going to consider the pros and cons of the train station in this article but the costs to own, operate and maintain this facility are going to impact the city budget beginning this year as $3 million, or more, of casino cash is being put toward its construction by the current administration.
Ideally we would like to reduce taxes for both homeowners and business, but how can we drop, or at least stabilize taxes, in light of these fiscal challenges? This past year the council was able to push back against a recommended tax hike, but that successful pushback may not be successful if a similar tax hike is recommended for 2014.
With all of this in mind, the administration and the council have to work cooperatively and immediately to develop a path toward consensus on how to respond to the State/Seneca arbitration outcome. We have to prepare for the two key possible outcomes: receiving all of what we are owed, or receiving zero of what we are owed.
In closing I want to also say it's time for the city to make a positive move toward the Seneca Nation and the Seneca Niagara Casino. The casino is here, it's not going away, it's a major employer and it has become a significant addition to our region's entertainment and tourism base.
The dispute between the State and Seneca Nation is a dispute with a solution beyond our control. We had no input on the original casino compact and we have no input on the current arbitration. That being said, there is no reason for us to deny the important role that the Seneca Niagara Casino plays in the business life of our community.
The city has done a great deal to harm itself since the casino compact was signed: They spent all the casino funds and then some; they failed to bank a portion of the revenue; and, they have wrung our hands helplessly over the State/Seneca impasse.
It's time to face the reality of the situation and work cooperatively to guide the city through what may be the greatest challenge in our city's history.
Glenn A. Choolokian is the Chairman of the Niagara Falls City Council, he resides in the city with his wife Pam and their two children.
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May 07, 2013