By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO January 11, 2005 Hundreds of people packed the hearing room of the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello Friday to hear Greg Allen, the Chief Indian Affairs Counsel to Governor George Pataki, as he spoke to and answered the questions of Sullivan County legislators about the governors proposal of settling longtime Native American land claims for five casinos in Sullivan County.
At least half of those in attendance were either union construction workers or somehow affiliated with the Catskill Casino Coalition, an organization of casino supporters heavily financed by the proposed casino developers.
Todd Diorio, President of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council, estimated that about 80 percent of the union workers in attendance were from Sullivan County. A number of them were unemployed, he said.
Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham recessed the meeting until this Thursday at 5 p.m. in the hearing room, where public comment will be accepted.
Before Allens speech, New York State Senator John Bonacic, whose district encompasses all of Sullivan County, stated that Pataki had assured him that home-rule, specifically meaning the county, will decide how many casinos, if any, will come to Sullivan County.
Without using any written statement, Allen gave a rundown of how casinos and land claim settlements had progressed over the last three and a half years.
Allen began by referring to the State Legislatures bill of 2001, which, among other things, granted three casinos for Sullivan and Ulster counties.
He stated that the United States Department of the Interior has taken the position over the last couple of years that the federal government will not contribute financially to any settlement.
Allen said the department and Congress have found it difficult to approve off-reservation gaming. All five proposed casinos for the county are part of the land claim settlements with the state. Each casino would be on off-reservation sites, which would be taken into trust by the federal government for perpetuity, said Allen.
Allen stressed that the casinos are the cornerstone for settling the outstanding claims with the five major tribes. All land claim settlements must be approved by the United States Congress and the New York State Legislature.
In addition, the governors point man amplified the head of states position that each tribe seeking a casino must have an agreement which is mutually satisfactory to the tribe and county.
After Allen spoke, legislators began a 20-minute question-and-answer period. Leni Binder opened up the questioning by inquiring as to why the casinos in the county hadnt started already. She claimed to have received assurances in the past that at least one casino was good to go after the governor gave his approval.
Allen said that after the State Legislature approve the legislation allowing the three casinos in 2001, the Department of the Interior failed to act on a request for a compact arrangement, expressing concerns about off-reservation gaming and shopping. Allen said the state has consistently heard from Congress about similar concerns.
He said that the Department of the Interior would only consider such a deal if it was part of a land claims settlement.
Allen said off-reservation gaming was a major issue in states such as California and Michigan as well. Therefore, any move Congress made could have serious ramifications nationwide.
District 6 Legislator Jodi Goodman said that business doesnt always breed business. She questioned what would happen to the land on a casino site if it became a failure.
Allen responded that each casino site would become sovereign Native American land, which would be inalienable, or Indian country, and thats how they will stay.
Allen went on to speak about the proposed casinos as a package of five, which would be presented to Congress.
This will be a battle in Congress, he added.
He didnt say it would be easy with the State Senate or Assembly either. Several counties in the state would be affected due to the awarding of significant acres of land to the tribes.
County Republican Minority Leader Rodney Gaebel had the toughest line of questioning of the day. He said the casinos would have the biggest impacts on local schools, infrastructure and quality of life, and he wanted to negotiate with the state over compensation for any impacts not covered by the tribes themselves.
Allen responded initially by saying the county should follow a comprehensive plan in which the impacts to schools, roads and the environment were carefully prepared for.
He followed that up by saying he believed the tribes impact arrangements with the local municipalities will go a good way in resolving the concerns. He said he recognized the worries the county would have with the impact to the amount of money the county will spend on Medicaid.
Gaebel followed up by stating that New York had never put casinos in a package like this before. Until the casinos become a reality, he said that we dont know what the impacts will be. He said he wasnt sure if $75 million a year from five casinos ($15 million a year from each of the five) would be enough.
However, he believed taxes and property assessments would continue to rise, and the average persons lifestyle would change.
Furthermore, he took issue with the New York State Department of Transportations plans to improve Route 17 for conversion into Interstate 86. He said they did not adequately address traffic issues and reiterated his request for negotiations with the state for monetary assistance.
At that point, Allen agreed that discussions should be held quickly. However, he maintained that any financial assistance to be given to the county should follow the State Legislatures annual budget process.
Sullivan County Republican Party Chairman and District 3 Legislator Greg Goldstein asked that the DOTs projects for Route 42 and I-86 be hastened. Goldstein was worried about the existing traffic congestion along the interchanges on Route 42 and through the Kiamesha Corridor due to recent developments. He surmised that this would rise with the addition of two casinos near the corridor (at Kutshers Sports Academy and the Concord Resort).
The representative for the DOT was noncommittal to any immediate improvements to either roadway, at first. He said the funding for such changes was uncertain currently. Allen estimated that the DOT did not expect to complete any projects until 2009.
However, after Allen spoke into his ear, the representative said the improvements to the interchange at Route 42 would be done this year. However, he said there would be no widening of Route 17 or the future Interstate 86.
District 8 Legislator Ron Hiatt, whose district includes the Town of Thompson (which would likely host four casinos), asked whether there were any other land claims with the state and if the governor planned on settling them with more casinos in Sullivan.
Allen responded that there was, indeed, a number of other land claims but that the state was not currently in discussions with any other tribes about settling land claims. In addition, he said some of the tribes were not federally recognized and thus would not be dealt with.
Allen noted that the 2001 legislation, which also introduced video lottery terminals to horseracing tracks throughout the state and the Mega Millions Lottery, was being challenged in court. The New York State Court of Appeals will be making a decision on it, he said.
The three casinos in the northern part of the state have also been challenged in court and ruled illegal. However, they continue to operate. One borders the St. Lawrence River, one is near Niagara Falls and the other is Turning Stone.
Hiatt, who questioned other legal matters involving casinos, reiterated concerns expressed to him by school officials over future state aid as a result of a projected increase in enrollment.
Allen once again said that any aid would have to follow the state budget process. He believed that $15 million a year from each casino would address the impacts to schools. Hiatt responded by insisting that the state should help.
Gaebel chimed back in by returning to the traffic issue. If there is a traffic jam leading to the casinos, people will not return, he said. The construction on the roads alone would cause traffic tie-ups, he added. Gaebel said he was caught in traffic for a half an hour this past summer while the state worked on Exit 113.
Gaebel said the ability of Route 17 to handle traffic is highly questionable. When he asked whether there might be high-speed rail service from New York to the Catskills, the representative gave a short no.
Allen responded by stating he had assurances that the DOT would make the necessary upgrades to local roads to mitigate any traffic impacts.
Goodman was the third legislator to stress the impacts to local schools. She said the countys schools are too small today. Eight of the nine legislators districts would require new schools if the casinos came to pass, she claimed.
She said the $15 million-a-year impact fee might be too late. (As an example, a recent proposal for a new BOCES building project has been estimated at $17.2 million.)
Goodman said the county has a need for a new county prison and wondered how Catskill Regional Medical Center would be able to handle the influx of visitors associated with the gaming facilities.
However, she believed that the Town of Liberty wanted gaming but was worried about being hit with impacts from the casinos in the eastern section of the county, while not reaping any benefits.
Allen said the decision was up to the tribe and their marketing strategy.
The discussions came to a close with Binder rounding out the exchange by stating that she would not vote on any legislation until she saw a bill outlining the specific conditions of any agreement. Thus far, she said she has yet to see anything in writing.