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Dyster Walking Tightrope in Gaming War

By Tony Farina

Mayor Paul Dyster

Barry Snyder

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Seneca Niagara Casino

Nik Wallenda may have put Niagara Falls on the world stage last summer when he walked across the Horseshoe Falls on a steel cable, but the mayor of the Cataract City has had to do his share of tightrope walking---political style---during the long and often bitter gaming dispute between the state and the Senecas with the city caught in the middle.

Mayor Paul Dyster has chosen his public words carefully during the three-year dispute over gaming exclusivity between the two warring sides, knowing full well the high stakes involved, especially for his city.

“We haven’t inflamed the situation,” Dyster explained during a telephone interview with the Reporter. “We’ve tried to maintain a calm atmosphere and we still have good relations with both sides.”

In a sense, the mayor is walking the political tightrope in the hope that when, and if, the dispute is finally settled and Niagara Falls receives the $60 million it is owed in slot revenues under the 2002 gaming compact, the stage will be set for a new and prosperous era of cooperation and the city can begin to recover from the severe fiscal damage that has been caused by the stalemate.

But as of now, the war of words in the gaming dispute is continuing between the governor and the Senecas and there’s still no sign of any kind of settlement before the legislative session ends June 20, one of the deadlines Gov. Cuomo has set for a resolution or he will consider Western New York fair game for a non-Indian casino as he pushes a statewide referendum for November to expand gaming in the state.

As an example of the heated rhetoric, Cuomo is questioning whether the state would want to renew the gaming compact which expires in 2016 when, in his view, the Senecas have not honored the original compact by withholding payments to the state totaling $600 million from the three host cities.

Seneca President Barry Snyder shot back that while the Senecas have negotiated diplomatically, “we continue to experience over and over the childish antics of the state’s top leader and his advisers.”

But not all of Snyder’s comments at last week’s celebration of Seneca sovereignty at the observance of the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842 were negative about the prospects of a settlement.

Snyder said he’s hoping the dispute will end soon with a fair solution to both sides, and to Mayor Dyster, who was at treaty celebration, Snyder’s words offer a glimmer of hope.

“I was encouraged by the language he [Snyder] used,” said Dyster.  “He said he was still hopeful and that he understood the governor is under a lot of pressure [on many issues].”

Dyster also praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo for getting a settlement on land rights and taxation issues with the Oneida Nation that will also see the Oneidas share casino revenues worth about $50 million with the state in exchange for exclusive gambling rights in Central New York.

Dyster credited Cuomo with breaking the logjam with the Oneidas as he has in the case “of so many other supposedly intractable issues in the last several years,” adding in a statement that it demonstrates Cuomo’s skill at settling disputes at the bargaining table.

The mayor is hoping that Cuomo can work his bargaining table magic in negotiations with the Senecas before the conclusion of the arbitration, saying that getting close to the eleventh hour may be the time both sides “get down to business and make the difficult decisions” to get an agreement.

“The window of opportunity for a settlement is now,” said Dyster, who believes that is the best possible outcome.

Meanwhile, the mayor said the city is tracking cash month-to-month, and will be okay until the fall on its present course.  Dyster said the city will have time to implement a settlement if it comes within the next few months before hitting the wall.

When asked what would happen if there’s no casino money, Dyster referred to an editorial in the Buffalo News that indicated that Cuomo, in a meeting with the editors, said Niagara Falls would be held harmless if there’s no casino cash.

Other options that would be available to the city in a worst case scenario would be the $13.45 million NYPA aid spin-up that the council rejected in the current budget because it could jeopardize future payments of $850,000 a year for 44 years if the money could not be paid back.

Dyster said his administration has looked at private borrowing---instead of the NYPA spin-up---and said it would cost slightly more but would not have the spin-back option that would be present under the NYPA arrangement if the casino money eventually comes through.

Meanwhile, as the city awaits the outcome of the arbitration process, Dyster said the city has taken a separate track with the Senecas on economic development issues, and he’s hopeful that agreements can be reached, like landscaping around the casino on John B. Daly Blvd. and Niagara St., saying “I believe that we can get that done.”

It could be a sign of better things to come and could mean that the mayor’s political tightrope walking will pay dividends in a post-settlement environment.  Of course, if there’s no settlement forthcoming, all bets are off, as they say, and what comes next is anybody’s guess.

City Council leaders have been bracing for a future without casino funds, at least in the short term, and have been rightly concerned about the apparent lack of progress in the arbitration process.  The mayor continues to hold out hope for an eleventh hour settlement and has publicly supported Cuomo’s efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement.

As for the Senecas, they believe the state has violated the compact by opening three “racinos” in the Western New York exclusivity region and in protest are continuing to withhold revenue sharing due the three host cities.

But despite the heated words and all the threats, in the end there are very high stakes involved for both sides, and a settlement is the best option, as Dyster maintains.  Now, at the eleventh hour, the time may be right.



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

May 21, 2013