A three-person arbitration panel has sided with New York State in its ongoing dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians on sharing casino revenues.
The two parties had an agreement that required the Seneca Nation to pay the state about $125 million a year from all three of its casinos: Seneca Niagara Casino, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, and Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino.
That agreement renews through 2023, but payments to the state were only spelled out through the first 14 years. The Senecas believed they no longer owed any funding to the state, but New York argued the continued payments were implied.
The arbitration panel released its decision on Tuesday afternoon, siding with the state.
Niagara Falls City Councilman Chris Voccio says the saga has shown the city needs to do a better job of not relying on the Senecas' money.
He says he doesn't want to use any Seneca money in the 2020 budget, rather he wants to see that payment invested in infrastructure and economic development.
"If you drive down Pine Avenue, where we are now, or you drive up Niagara Street or drive up Main Street, and you look around, it's hard to imagine that the city, over the last 15 years has received $250 million,” said Voccio.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster agrees with Voccio when it comes to being less dependent on money from the Senecas, especially as there is no certainty to what will happen when the current compact expires in 2023.
However, he says it's not an easy process.
"We're trying to deliver services and keep taxes down, and that's a trade-off the administration and city council have to work out year by year in the budget process,” said Dyster.
It's not just municipalities that benefit from Tuesday's arbitration decision.
Destination Niagara USA President and CEO John Percy says the standoff between the state and the Senecas meant they had less money to market the area.
"We receive seven percent of the Niagara Falls city share. Those dollars make up, at one time, and still approximately around 30 percent of our overall budget,” he said.
Percy says because the Seneca Casino and Hotel is a partner of Destination Niagara USA, the money spent by the Senecas will only come back to benefit them.
Destination Niagara and the City of Niagara Falls have not yet been given a timeline of when they will receive reimbursements.
The nation says that despite the panel’s acknowledgement that the compact:
“Simply does not address the topic of revenue share beyond Year 14, a majority of the panel members determined that an obligation exists to continue revenue share payments to the State. We continue to believe, as anyone who has read the Compact, that the Nation’s Compact payment obligation was fulfilled, and we believe we had an obligation to the Seneca people to defend the Compact as it was written and agreed upon.”
The Senecas add that they will "take the appropriate time to review and respond to the opinion, and move forward."
A statement from within Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration reads, in full:
"We're thankful the arbitration panel held a fair hearing of the facts and ruled in favor of the state and the local communities that have been hurt by the Seneca Nation's actions. It was clear to us that the Nation had an obligation to continue payments - period. According to the Compact, this arbitration process was prescribed to resolve conflicts and now that it's concluded, we ask that the Nation to cease any further delays, make the state and local communities whole, and resume payments."