By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO January 18, 2005 Hundreds of people gathered at the Monticello High School auditorium on Thursday evening for a public comment session in front of the entire Sullivan County Legislature, all about New York State Governor George Patakis proposal for five Native American casinos in Sullivan County.
The gathering was part two of a meeting the legislature recently held with Greg Allen, the Chief Indian Affairs Counsel to Pataki, and featuring presentations by the two opposing groups on the issue, the Catskill Casino Coalition and Casino-Free Sullivan County.
This time, almost half of the audience consisted of union construction workers. While most of the union speakers were from Sullivan County, many identified themselves as Orange County and Ulster County residents. In fact, a representative of Teamsters Local 445, based in Newburgh, was one of the highest-ranking union officials to speak. (The local does represent workers in Sullivan County.)
Empire Resorts was heavily represented as well. A number of workers from the racino gave testimonies about the career opportunities they were given by Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway.
The event got off to a rocky start, however, as several individuals were not allowed to wait in the auditorium. Instead, they were forced to wait outside for more than an hour and a half, per the instructions of school security, apparently operating under the direction of Monticello Central Schools Superintendent Eileen Casey.
That did not sit well at all with those who were kicked out. Stephen Bachop of Obernburg, a leading member of Casino-Free Sullivan County, called the actions ridiculous. He said it was not right to be kicked out of the auditorium for being a responsible citizen. Like several others, he wanted to be there early to sign up for public comment and ensure a seat.
The school was open until 4:30 p.m. for after-school activities. The meeting was scheduled for 5, and several individuals claimed they were told to be there early. Bachop said there apparently was discoordination between the county and the school.
Paula Medley, president of the Basha Kill Area Association and a resident of Westbrookville, was the first to speak. She called the five casino proposal disastrous and irresponsible. She warned of the impacts the casinos would have on the natural beauty and resources of the area. She warned about the negative impacts the tax-free gaming facilities would have on local schools, emergency services, water and sewer systems, roads, and other services.
Callicoon Center Pastor Robert Paquet said divorces, teenage gambling, child abuse and neglect would also rise.
The central argument by those supporting the casinos, repeated over and over again, is that it would provide jobs to the area.
Former Village of Monticello Trustee David Rosenberg said the decline of old resorts such as the Concord and others turned the Catskills from a danish that everyone flocked to into an old bagel. Those hamlets in the more rural sections of the county, such as Bethel, had always maintained their character despite the hundreds of hotels and bungalows in the county, he said.
Les Kristt, the owner of Kristt Office Equipment Company in Monticello, read a prepared speech, in which he said the tens of millions of people within driving distance of the county would provide a positive impact to the local economy.
Just think of where the Town of Wallkill would be today if they banned all those shopping malls and stores at the intersection of routes 17 and 84, he explained. Yes, it is going to take some hard work to make sure that the county gets its fair share of the take. It will also take a lot of hard work to build additional infrastructure to accommodate the influx of new workers and their families. I have never been afraid of hard work, and neither have most of us natives here in Sullivan County.
Several of the casino opponents countered that casinos would lead to higher taxes, as they have done already in Atlantic City, Niagara Falls, Connecticut, and even Nevada, where the state is operating at a deficit of approximately one bullion dollars.
Susan Brown, a leader of Casino-Free Sullivan County, questioned how many new workers and students would come to the area. She did not believe a combined $75 million annual impact fee from all five casinos would cover the construction of new schools in seven of the eight local school districts, which already are at full capacity. In addition, she predicted that crime would rise.
Brown explained to the audience what has happened around Turning Stone Casino near Syracuse, where the Oneida Indian Nation has reportedly been purchasing large quantities of property, which in turn will be become non-taxable, sovereign land.
Like several others, Brown wondered why, if casinos were so positive, has the State of Connecticut passed legislation prohibiting any further gaming facilities. She reminded the public that the group had gathered 3,000 signatures last summer opposing casinos in Sullivan County.
Several of the opponents said that one of the only new businesses which tend to benefit the area surrounding casinos is pawn shops. Bankruptcies and suicides were frequently cited as incidents which dramatically increase as a result of casinos.
Joan Thursh of Woodbourne, a longtime leading opponent of casinos, said that such gaming made as much sense as a revenue source for the county as the landfill was intended to be. (The landfill, so far, has run the county a debt of more than $60 million.)
Some casino supporters lamented that young people, including their children, were not returning home due to a lack of professional jobs. The casinos, they said, would provide such opportunities.
But others took a different view. David Ginsberg of Hurleyville said he didnt want his daughter bringing drinks to people in casinos. Instead, he said he would rather she seat people at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. In addition, Ginsberg warned of widespread forest clearing as a result of the casinos.
One resident of Liberty, who owns a business in Youngsville, was among those who warned that the $15 million impact fee per casino would not be enough, since they would not pay taxes on their land or county sales tax for any games in the casino. She said that it was New York State and New York City who would reap the benefits of the deal. (Proposed arrangements with some of the proposed casinos will give New York State as much as 25 percent of all slot machine revenue from the casinos).
On a different angle, one individual said he believed that the talk of casinos had driven up investment in the area.
Yet Tina Hazarian said that the business prospects for casinos are not good, considering the recent performance of the Monticello Raceway racino, where hundreds of people have been laid off. Reportedly, it is performing the worst per video lottery terminal, said Hazarian.
In addition, Hazarian said that casinos kill local tourism industries, because gamblers are not tourists. She referenced the famous seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, where tourism has significantly declined as a result of the two casinos in that state, she said.
Many in the audience continued their calls for a referendum on the issue. One resident suggested a non-binding referendum, so that the county legislators could gauge the opinion in the county.
One county resident said she has never seen a short-term solution to a long-term problem, such as the depression Sullivan County has been in for the last decade, in her view.
She wondered why there was such a hurry to enact legislation which contained no guarantees, no escape clauses, and added more tax-exempt properties to a county with an abundance of them.
Town of Lumberland Supervisor John LiGreci stated that the Association of Town Supervisors had voted recently in favor of five Native American casinos by an 8-6 margin. The board voted 11-3 in favor of casinos in general. He said that three of the supervisors had concerns over whether the proposed $15 million impact fee is negotiable or even sufficient.
Personally, LiGreci said the positives of casinos outweighed the negatives, but that the county legislature should make sure there are enough funds to cover the various impacts.
A number of union construction workers closed out the public meeting. They unanimously repeated a consistent message that casinos would bring jobs.