By Nathan Mayberg
WURTSBORO January 21, 2005 The Town of Mamakating Board has voted in favor of a resolution which supports Governor George Patakis proposal for five casinos in Sullivan County on Tuesday evening.
The proposal is part of a land claims settlement with five Native American tribes. One of those tribes is the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, which intends to build a casino in the Town of Mamakating.
Voting in favor of the resolution were Town of Mamakating Supervisor Charles Penna, Councilman John Sean Moriarty and Councilwoman Regina Saunders. Abstaining were councilman Nicholas Salomone Jr. and councilwoman Judith Young.
The vote followed a public comment session which ran over the three hour mark. The vast majority of town residents spoke against the resolution. Of those who spoke in favor of casinos, they were equally split between town residents and outsiders.
The board held a work session before the vote and public comment period, in which Young was the most vocal of those on the board in calling for more time to study the issue. She advised the board to contact other town governments, in order to understand what the impacts would be.
Saunders replied that such in-depth study was unnecessary. I think youre going a lot further than we need to go, she said.
Young said there were outstanding questions that required answers, such as what the casino jobs would pay, and where their employees would come from. She said the environmental impact statements completed so far by the tribes only took into consideration the impact of three casinos and not five. Young asked why the board was in such a rush to vote on the issue without all of the information.
She expressed concern about what could happen to taxable land in the area, pointing to the Oneida tribe which operates Turning Stone Casino, which has purchased approximately 18,000 acres in the area, which are now tax-free, sovereign land.
Salomones major source of contention was on the impact to the schools. He said most of the areas schools are filled to capacity. The Town of Mamakating covers six different school districts.
Moriarty said that the boards resolution was just a first step, and said Salomone and Young shouldnt jump the gun.
Penna told those abstaining that there would be more time in the future to address their concerns. He argued through the course of the night that the land in question belonged to the Native Americans first, and they deserved it back.
Pennas rationale for supporting the casinos included his statement that there used to be thousands of rooms and hundreds of hotels in the heydays of the Catskills. He said the five casinos would not have as many hotel rooms. Penna stated that there were traffic problems back then, and that the county could handle them again.
Finally, the casinos would offer people jobs, he said. He also said the town needed more revenue, and he believed casinos could provide them.
A motion was then made for discussion and a vote on the casinos. Public comment was then allowed before the vote. A crowd of nearly 150 people sat and stood in the town hall as public comment began.
Penna introduced Josh Sommers, spokesman for Catskill Casino Coalition, to speak first. The coalition is an association of proposed casino developers, local businesses and unions who support five casinos. Sommers said that Sullivan County needs an economic engine.
Sommers contended that the casinos would provide union jobs and health benefits. He said that new industries and businesses, including new retail outlets, would pop up as a result of the casinos. The new jobs created would include high-end positions, he stated. Sommers, like other representatives of the coalition, said that Patakis plan requires the tribes to complete the environmental review process with the town and county.
Dr. Katherine Spilde, who has been involved with several studies on Native American gaming, and whose appearance was paid for by the coalition, stated that casinos would support other local business, because they are big purchasers of other products.
However, more than a few people raised objections and serious questions to those beliefs.
Paula Medley, president of the Basha Kill Association, was the first. Her organization consists of approximately 500 people, a majority of which live in the Town of Mamakating, she said.
She called casinos the greatest threat to the areas natural resources since her group was organized over 30 years ago. In addition, she expressed concern about the impact the tax-free gaming facilities would have on local infrastructure, including roads, water and sewer systems, and schools. She warned that local citizens would not be able to address grievances with the tribes who operate the casinos, since they are considered a sovereign, independent country.
Justina Burton argued that casinos are a regressive tax, which will hurt the poor the most. She used Atlantic City, NJ, as an example of where local businesses disappeared after casinos entered. Burton said that casinos in that city and others have brought a rise in crimes, suicides, unemployment and bankruptcies. She said local taxes would rise to make up for the burdens the tax-free casinos placed on municipalities.
One town resident pointed out a statistic widely used by casino opponents for every $1 a casino returns to the community, the community spends $3. She also referred to another circulated statistic in one Connecticut school, translators were needed for 32 different languages as a result of the influx of foreign speakers due to the casinos there.
The same woman said that there was approximately 10 percent fewer businesses surrounding casinos in Atlantic City, than when casinos first popped up there. Part of the reason, she said, was that casinos keep people inside them by putting multiple businesses indoors, to maximize their profits.
Eileen Weil of Summitville said she was more concerned with the process. She asked the town board members if any of them had actually read the proposed legislation or had spoken to the six superintendents of the schools encompassing the town about what impacts may arise to their schools, as a result of the casinos.
This is probably the biggest thing to happen to Sullivan County, she said. She said a vote on the bill would be similar to playing a casino game without knowing the rules.
On the other side of the aisle, local ironworkers were well represented. They argued that casinos would mean more jobs and a better standard of living for themselves and others. Several of them stated that they currently wake up at 4 a.m. to travel long distances for work.
Ken Morgan of Phillipsport described himself as a gambler who is opposed to casinos. As a poker player, he observed that most dealers earn minimum wage salaries and rely on tips. He said the communities surrounding Turning Stone and Atlantic City, made Liberty and Monticello look like Shangri-la.
Casinos dont care about their communities, he said. Nobody will stop at local restaurants, because casinos offer all-you-can-eat buffets.
At least one town resident found himself in the middle. He said his happiest memories were from the glory years of the Catskills in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The area has declined drastically since that time, he said.
We need new life in the area, he said. But, he said, he needed more information before he could decide on whether he could support casinos.
Todd Diorio, president of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council, said many local construction workers are seasonal. Casinos will be built by unions, he said, meaning local union workers would see an increase in pay. He admitted that many of the workers will be imported from Orange County.
Stephen Bachop, a leader of Casino-Free Sullivan County, said the casinos will turn thousands of teenagers into pathological gamblers.
Randy Zimmerman of Phillipsport said he has heard promises like these before. He said Kohls Warehouse promised 800 jobs with health benefits, but have since cut down the workforce and their benefits.
For the union workers who supported the casinos, the matter was simple: they wanted more job opportunities, better pay, and less travel.
After the meeting adjourned, Moriarty said, I believe the residents elected me to do a job. I did the best with what information I have. Hopefully, [casinos] will bring livable wage jobs.
Saunders said she voted to support five casinos in Sullivan County so Mamakating has some opportunities.
County Legislator Kathleen LaBuda sat through the entire proceedings. She said the county legislature plans to vote on Patakis proposal February 3, after some members travel to Albany to find out more information. LaBuda voted against legislation in November to support two casinos affiliated with Empire Resorts.