Ruling Could Bring Restaino, Senecas to New Beginning

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By: Tony Farina

The mayor-elect of Niagara Falls, Robert Restaino, may be in a position to win a major financial victory in the coming days, and some observers think it could happen soon after he takes office in January or possibly even sooner.

There’s no guarantee as yet that the Seneca Nation will make the $256-million back payment to the state before Restaino takes office, but now that a federal judge in Buffalo has upheld last January’s arbitration panel ruling in favor of the state on gaming compact revenue sharing, some believe the Senecas would pay rather than continue the fight.

“I think they will likely make the payment,” said a source close to the Senecas, although he emphasized they could continue to fight the arbitration panel’s 2 – 1 ruling against them.  But the source indicated the Senecas have the money set aside to make the payment, suggesting that’s the most likely scenario. 

If they do make the payment, it will mean about $35 million for Niagara Falls, allowing the city to repay the $10 million advanced by the state to close the gap in the current budget and another $25 million moving forward to deal with the coming year in addition to the resumption of revenue sharing payments.  The latest ruling last week comes as the city is struggling to find ways to close next year’s $4 million gap with a slight tax increase and a garbage user fee under consideration.

Several sources suggest it might be a way for the Seneca Nation and mayor-elect Robert Restaino to begin a new era of cooperation as outgoing Mayor Paul Dyster and the Senecas were never seen as on the same page, with Dyster an unblinking ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.  Cuomo and the Senecas have rarely agreed on anything since the last casino gaming stalemate ended in 2013.

Restaino has been meeting with Senecas on a regular basis, and he said after winning election last week that he will continue to meet with the Senecas to find common ground.  If the gaming stalemate truly has ended, it will be a great opportunity for both sides to get off to a great start on the next four years, leading up to the expiration of the current gaming compact in 2023.

“It could signal the beginning of a new relationship,” said City Councilmember Chris Voccio.  “I would hope that if it happens, we would use the [gaming] money in a judicious way, including for infrastructure and economic development, as it was intended.”

The Senecas had taken their case to federal court following the arbitration panel’s ruling, claiming their obligations under the gaming compact were completed in 2016, saying the panel “interpreted that a new, unwritten obligation exists for the Seneca Nation,” and it was their obligation to “defend our agreements for the benefit of others.”

Officially, the Senecas say they will review last week’s decision to determine how to proceed, but since continuing the payments will cost close to $1 billion to the state up to 2023, it could take some time to make clear to the 8,000 members of the Seneca Nation of the need to move forward, if that’s the decision.

The Senecas have already paid close to $1.5 billion to New York under the agreement for exclusivity rights which they feel have been compromised by various gaming venues promoted by the state within the jurisdiction.

As one source put it, that money will definitely hurt the Seneca Nation in many ways and may require a reduction in services to people on the reservation.  But the options to continue the fight, including not paying and forcing New York to take them to federal court, may be less appealing than trying to move forward and work toward a new agreement in 2023.

 

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