Does Senator Ortt’s plan for casino cash go far enough?

By Mike Hudson, The Niagara Falls Reporter

State Sen. Rob Ortt wants to reverse the state and local split of the slot machine revenue take at the Seneca Niagara Casino and give Niagara Falls 75 percent, leaving the state with 25 percent.

Since the end of 2003, the city has collected about $183 million, while the state has collected about $600 million, Ortt said.

The big unanswered question is whether or not Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster would simply have squandered the $600 million in the same way he blew through the $183 million he did receive.

City Controller Maria Brown has said that the city property tax rate could be reduced to essentially nothing if the casino cash had been applied to tax relief.

The Seneca Niagara Casino has earned about $600 million for New York State and about $183 million for the City of Niagara Falls. State Senator Rob Ortt wants to invert the ratio. 

But instead, casino money has been used by Dyster for any number of fanciful projects, including the construction of new penguin habitat at the Aquarium of Niagara, paying off a tax lien for Community Missions, a series of rock concerts at the Hard Rock Café, new trash totes, golf course cart paths, a summer camp for city schoolchildren and a disastrous winter “attraction” called the Holiday Market.

Additionally, a significant amount has also been used to cover shortfalls in Dyster’s general fund budget.

Dyster cites language in the state’s deal with the city that says the money may only be used for “economic development,” although none of his initiatives has resulted in the creation of a single professional, private sector job.

Ortt noted this failure in announcing his new legislation.

“I don’t think we’ve done a good job in the city of leveraging the casino funds to create good-paying jobs, to really create the kind of economic engine we need,” the senator said.

Astoundingly, neither Dyster nor state Rep. John Ceretto would comment on Ortt’s proposal, even though it would inject millions into the city’s troubled economy.

Ortt is a Republican, while Dyster and Ceretto are Democrats.

Most observers agree that significantly lowering the property tax burden here would result in economic boom times, as new residents flocked to buy tax-free houses and entrepreneurs opened businesses that could pay workers a living wage rather than turning the money over to municipal government.

Currently, Niagara Falls home and business owners pay the highest taxes of any city in the state.

One factor behind Ortt’s proposal, he said, is the fact that casino revenue is dwindling at a rapid pace, thanks to the explosion of casino construction in New York and nearby states.

Revenue from the casino has fallen steadily, from $21.6 million in 2012 to $20.2 million in 2013 and $19 million last year. Projections show that, this year, just $18 million will be realized and things look even worse for 2016.

“Right now, under the current agreement, we have a smaller pie to divy up then we had 10, 12 years ago,” said Ortt.

Albany insiders say that Ortt’s proposal, which he calls the Niagara Revitalization Plan, has little chance of becoming law in a state overwhelmingly controlled by the Democrats.

The current funding formula expires by the end of 2016. Ortt hopes to move his plan forward by June. Don’t hold your breath.

Without Dyster and Ceretto’s vocal and emboldened support for an increased share of the casino revenue for Niagara Falls, the state assembly and the governor will hardly take notice.

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