Dyster blames Council for squandering Casino Cash as financial crisis looms

In Niagara Falls

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The gall. The unmitigated gall.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, the man responsible for figuring casino revenue into the general fund budget and using it for everything from a failed winter festival to a series of expensive but half baked rock concerts, is now blaming the City Council for the squandering of more than $100 million in annual payments from the Seneca Nation of Indians.

As the city teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, the desperate mayor is seeking a reassessment that will significantly boost everyone’s property taxes citywide. He’s asking for a bailout from the state, and as New York’s Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments prepares to land here with both boots, Mayor Dyster, who has been in office for the past nine years, wants to blame somebody else.

“(The council) has chosen to use casino payments, rather than raise taxes, to pay for the same expenses. You can’t blame the city council members for doing that, and I’m guessing the majority of taxpayers don’t have an issue with that strategy,” Mr. Dyster told WGRZ-TV News in an interview earlier this week. “The problem is, when there’s uncertainty about the delivery of casino revenues, then you’ve got to make some very difficult choices about how to proceed.”

The Seneca have been adamant. The original casino compact called for payments to the state – which then distributed a minuscule portion of that money to Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca, where the casinos are located – annually for a period of 14 years.

When the compact was renegotiated in 2013 giving the Seneca a 20-year extension on the original agreement, neither Mr. Dyster nor Gov. Andrew Cuomo thought to include a provision to extend the payments as well. The Seneca cut off payments in March.

The loss of casino revenue would cripple Niagara Falls. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a recent audit of city finances that the city will run out of fund balance by the end of the year and face a $12 million budget shortfall by 2019. Mr. DiNapoli was particularly critical of the city’s misuse of casino revenue.

City Controller Maria Brown came to much the same conclusions and wasn’t shy about sharing them in public. The mayor fired her.

Mayor Dyster said he trusts Gov. Cuomo to get the Seneca to start paying again, but added that he is taking a proactive stance.

“What we’re trying to do is make certain that no money goes out the door that isn’t for an absolutely essential expenditure,” the mayor said. “We’re tracking it as we go along.”

Mr. Dyster said he’d like to see the state bail the city out, but has made no formal request to Albany.

State Senator Robert Ortt, a Republican who represents the city of Niagara Falls, said that he does not want to see the city receive any state funding unless it shows a commitment to long-term financial reforms.

“Getting the money for the short-term, that’s certainly something that can be discussed. But that’s treating the symptom, not the disease,” Sen. Ortt said. “The disease is the overreliance and the misuse of casino funds.”

There is no timetable in place for the beginning of arbitration between the state and the Seneca, and the outcome is far from certain. At issue is the compact, signed by all sides, in which the obligation for the Seneca to pay for the privilege of operating a casino here expired in March.

Is it the Seneca’s fault that Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Dyster were too dense to include an extension of the payments in addition to extending the tribe’s right to operate?

As is his way, Mr. Dyster seeks to deflect blame. The financial disaster he’s led the city into isn’t going to be pretty, and City Council is his only logical scapegoat.

He conveniently forgets that Charlie Walker, Kristen Grandinetti and Andy Touma – all essentially rubber stamps for any wacky plan that comes out of the mayor’s office – have often constituted the Council majority.

“Don’t worry, it’s casino money, not tax money,” Dyster has said on numerous occasions.

Maybe now it’s time to start worrying.

Seneca President Barry Snyder’s smile is perhaps because he knows the renewed compact doesn’t account for payments past this year, unlike the other two grinning fools.

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