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Casino Cash No Windfall for City As Most of It Already Spent

By Mike Hudson

"The earth is enjoyed by heroes"—this is the unfailing truth.

Sources in Albany and Niagara Falls City Hall this week confirmed that all but about $13 million of the $89 million the city is to receive under an agreement reached between the state and the Seneca Nation of Indians has already been spent.

And most of the remainder will go toward basic operating expenses contained in the regular 2013 city budget.

Last month, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli – a Democrat who was supported both by Mayor Paul Dyster and Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti -- issued a scathing report on the financial condition of the city, stating that even with the casino revenue the city has been spending about $7 million more each year than it takes in.

In private conversation, DiNapoli described Niagara Falls as a “fiscal train wreck.”

The line of institutions and creditors who will demand a chunk of the settlement money has already formed, and will include the lenders on the massively overbuilt and over-budgeted city courthouse, John Percy’s Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., the city school district, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority for use at Niagara Falls International Airport.

Prior to last week’s announcement, the city has received $69 million in casino revenue, with the first check arriving in 2004. The lion’s share of the money – more than $50 million – arrived and has been spent since Dyster was elected mayor in 2007.

Years of expensive concerts at the Hard Rock Café, a half-million-dollar Holiday Market that few attended and a multi-million dollar Underground Railroad Exhibit that isn’t half finished were a few of the “big ideas” Dyster chose to throw money at.

But the bulk of the casino cash revenue went toward simply paying the bills for a municipal government spinning out of control.

Youthful Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo, for example, employs 22 people in the departments he oversees, the salaries for all of whom are paid with casino money.

In contrast, Niagara Falls, Ont., does its economic development with a staff of four, and anyone can see which of the two operations is more successful in creating jobs, attractions and excitement in their communities.

Sen. George Maziarz said that the casino revenue has done the people of Niagara Falls much good, however.

“Joe Ruffolo over at the hospital did an amazing thing with the reconstruction of the behavioral health center there, and the airport is on track to serve 200,000 passengers this year,” Maziarz told the Niagara Falls Reporter. “Then you’ve got Cynthia Bianco at the school district, who uses all the money they get for capital improvements.”

The problem comes with the money given directly to the city, Maziarz said.

“You tell me: what does the city of Niagara Falls have to show for the casino revenue it has received?” he asked. “The mayor was asked why the grass in the parks is so overgrown and he said it was because they hadn’t gotten the casino money!”

“Good things have been done with that money, just not with the part the city has received,” he added.

While Dyster has characterized last week’s settlement as a historically great breakthrough for the city, it is doubtful that $13 million will do much to stem the city’s population loss, halt the spread of blight in the neighborhoods or result in the creation of a single permanent private sector job.

And it certainly won’t reduce what are among the highest property taxes paid anywhere in the United States.




Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

JUN 18, 2013