By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO February 1, 2005 As Sullivan County legislators prepare to make one of the most important votes in recent memory this Thursday, calls for a public referendum have never been greater.
Town board members throughout the county, most recently in Bethel and Rockland, have expressed their desire for such a referendum. Public comment sessions at the County Legislature and at a number of other area meetings have been filled with similar calls.
As of press time, no formal legislation had been proposed by New York State Governor George Pataki, who has been working to settle land claims with five Native American tribes in exchange for five casinos in Sullivan County.
Over the weekend, several legislators talked of a referendum and other issues concerning their potential vote on five casinos, set for this Thursday, during a special meeting at 1 p.m., in the Sullivan County Government Center.
Republican Minority Leader Rodney Gaebel said he was not sure how the county could introduce a public referendum.
What would that prove? he said.
He continued to state that he would not vote on casinos until formal legislation is introduced. When the five-casino proposal was first introduced, Gaebel said he would take no casinos instead of five. He said he currently is undecided but was looking for answers from the governors office on a variety of issues related to casinos, including its impact on Route 17. He said that fellow legislators had a number of questions for the governors office. How the governor answered them would have an impact on how they voted, he said.
Gaebel said the state would benefit more from the casinos than the county would.
The state has to come up with more than they have for me to approve [five casinos], he said.
Legislator Ron Hiatt (a Democrat representing a portion of the area that would have casinos sites) said he would not oppose a public referendum. However, he said he was waiting on County Attorney Sam Yasgur to gather information on how such a referendum could be held.
Hiatt said the cost of potential new school construction as a result of five casinos is a huge concern. A report by Spectrum Gaming to the Legislature last year estimated that three casinos would produce more than 20,000 new students.
Hiatt said he wasnt sure if the impact fees proposed by each potential casino ($15 million a year) would be sufficient to handle the increased school and infrastructure needs directly related to the casinos.
(For example, when incidental and post-construction costs are tallied, the Sullivan West school construction/ renovations project could run over $60 million. The Monticello School District, in whose district all five casinos have been proposed, is approximately three times the size of Sullivan West.)
Hiatt said he had no argument with pro-casino supporters, who say the casinos will bring more jobs to the area. However, he said he would not support the Legislature voting on the state legislation for five casinos when it has not even been introduced yet.
That is why I voted no last time, he said. We are supposed to make informed decisions.
Democrat Jonathan Rouis said he was not sure how a public referendum could be accomplished. He said he remains undecided on the proposal for five casinos.
I am still giving it a lot of thought, he said.
Rouis said he expected the governor to introduce the legislation this week. If not, Rouis said he would make a decision on whether to vote on the matter at that time.
As for the impact of schools, Rouis responded that the local school districts are at or near capacity, and that is an issue which will need to be addressed regardless of casinos. He said that there are funding mechanisms in place to cover new school construction costs.
Democrat Sam Wohl has been a supporter of casinos, and several of them could be sited within the district he represents. He said he believed a public referendum could be presented only after the governor officially proposed his legislation.
Wohl, who on Thursday said he would not vote on the legislation until it was officially introduced, said there would be a vote regardless.
Wohl said that five casinos would bring eight to ten years of employment for construction and maintenance workers, in addition to in-house employees.
He said that legislators have asked for a number of concessions from the governor. Among them, he said, is school tax relief and an increase in the permitted age of casino patrons. Wohl said there was a consensus among the legislature that the minimum age of casino entrants should be 21.
Legislator Leni Binder, who has been a supporter of casinos and teaches a class at Sullivan County Community College on that topic, said she did not believe a non-binding resolution was legal. She called it almost a cop-out.
She said that if the county used a referendum this time, it would be asked to do so again.
As for school costs, she said the schools will need new construction anyway. She stated that the impact fees by the casinos would be sufficient to cover the costs borne by the schools. In addition, schools could bond new construction over a long period of time, she said.
Binder, however, declined to comment on the positive impacts associated with casino gaming.