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Analysis By David Staba

Last Thursday afternoon, Randy Chrysler looked around his property on Upper Mountain Road on the Tuscarora Reservation and described the small empire that tax-free cigarette sales built.

There's the bottled-water business run by his brother Roger. Another brother, Joe, runs a sneaker shop. And cars line up to buy gas as he talks.

"The smoke shop covered the payroll while they were getting started," Randy Chrysler said. "I employ 30 people here. They have wives and kids."

All that, along with the dozen or so other stores selling tax-free tobacco, gasoline and other products on the Tuscarora Reservation hung in the balance for several tense days last week, after a Buffalo tobacco wholesaler notified owners that it would stop delivering unstamped cigarettes.

Milhem Attea and Bros., the largest supplier to the reservation stores, pointed to statements by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and his spokesman that warned of fines and even license revocations for anyone who provided the unstamped smokes.

Shelves emptied quickly at Randy's Smoke Shop and most other stores. Piles of tires and wood pallets piled up near many shops on the Tuscarora and Seneca nations, a not-so-subtle warning of civil unrest to come.

After three days of rising tensions, New York Gov. Pataki's office and the state Department of Taxation and Finance announced that wholesalers could start shipping again, without fear of punishment, while negotiations with the state Legislature continued.

Spitzer's stance and an Assembly budget bill threatened reversal of an Albany charade that's been going on for more than a decade.

Each year, the state Legislature includes language in the budget legislation that says, in effect, "OK, this year we're really going to start collecting sales tax from stores on the reservations."

Then Pataki says, "Yes, we will. Next year."

And almost everybody is happy. Legislators keep collecting contributions from the group representing convenience-store owners, the reservation shops stay in business and Pataki doesn't have to play the heavy.

The last time he tried on that role, in 1997, tire fires burned at reservations throughout Western New York, with protesters clogging the New York State Thruway where it passes through the Seneca Nation, forcing its closure.

A Pataki administration source pointed to the financial impact of a rerun. Aside from an estimated $5 million per week for State Troopers needed to keep roadways clear, traffic interruption would muffle interstate commerce and possibly hamper homeland security efforts.

The Senecas brandish an additional hammer since the last sales-tax standoff -- casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca that generate millions for Albany annually (even if none of it seems to be finding its way back to Niagara Falls).

Surveys have consistently shown an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers oppose taxing the reservation stores. A Zogby poll earlier this month showed 79 percent supported the governor's non-enforcement policy.

Those numbers make the stance taken by Spitzer, the front-runner to succeed Pataki, particularly curious.

About the only people unhappy with the status quo are the non-reservation convenience store owners, who cite figures purporting to show how much revenue New York state is supposedly "losing" via non-enforcement.

Their figures, though, ignore the fact that almost half of reservation sales are made to non-New Yorkers. Many smokers would also switch to cheaper cigarettes if the discounted reservation cigarettes became unavailable, further cutting into the estimated windfall.

Then there's the question of whether you can really lose something you never had to begin with.

To Chrysler, the dizzying conflict of numbers is beside the point. Attempting to collect taxes from the shops now, reversing a policy that's been in place for decades, would decimate a system that's created almost all the viable businesses on the Tuscarora and other reservations.

"For us, this isn't about gas and cigarettes -- this is about sovereignty," said Chrysler, who is 41 and has run his store for 16 years. "It's about giving our people opportunities like every other race has -- the opportunity to support a family, to be a working mother or father."

Chrysler employs 30 people. After Attea notified him on Tuesday that it wouldn't be shipping any more cigarettes, he started laying off workers, about a dozen in all, many of them relatives.

"To have to lay off your cousins ..." Chrysler said, his voice trailing off. "This is a good business. We pay our bills. Now we have to lay them off because they won't deliver to an Indian nation. The toughest thing was to have to tell my mom's nieces who have kids, 'You've got no job.'"

Chrysler, who is also one of the top drivers at Ransomville Speedway, said he's worked to make an impact in the community beyond the reservation as well.

Like many reservation stores, Randy's Smoke Shop sponsors youth sports teams and is one of the first stops for anyone raising money for just about any charitable cause.

"The press always comes out here when there's trouble," Chrysler said. "But look at everything else we do. The volunteer fire departments can't go to NOCO and ask for money."

Asked when the pile of rubber and wood across Upper Mountain Road might catch fire, Chrysler smiled and shrugged.

"Whenever I get cold," he said.

A day later, on Friday, Attea announced it would resume shipping, but to Chrysler and most other Indian merchants, there's a big difference between a delay and a resolution.

It got pretty cold Friday night, and several hundred Tuscaroras attended the bonfire on Upper Mountain Road.

"It doesn't change anything for us," Chrysler said when asked about the state's announced non-action on Friday. "We're still on pins and needles around here."

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 21 2006