By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO February 15, 2005 After months of public comment calling on Sullivan County legislators to disclose their public opinions on casino gaming and the five-casino proposal, all nine legislators did so on Thursday before their vote which approved New York State Governor George Patakis plan for five casinos in the Catskills by a 6-3 margin.
Although several legislators had publicly stated their opinions on casinos in the weeks and months leading up to the vote, about half of them waited until their vote on Thursday to state exactly how they felt about five casinos in Sullivan County.
Greg Goldstein, R, District 3
Republican Legislator Greg Goldstein introduced the bill. He said the casino process was a long time in the making, and he recognized he was making a historic vote.
We want the jobs and need the jobs, he said, adding that he was not afraid to get stuck in traffic.
Jonathan Rouis, D, District 4
Democrat Jonathan Rouis had said very little leading up to the vote, except that he was optimistic the schools would be taken care of by the state in the event that a projected increase of thousands of new students comes true.
Rouis said, For many decades, gambling has been discussed. The debate has reached a critical point.
He said the casino proposal was an opportunity to make the county a major vacation destination.
Rouis believes casinos will bring additional retail outlets and increase the sales tax base. The casinos will also bring new entertainment to the county, he said. He said that local businesses will be promoted by the Sullivan County Visitors Association.
Ron Hiatt, D, District 8
The longest speech of the day was given by Democratic Legislator Ron Hiatt, who voted for the legislation after voting (unsuccessfully) to table the bill.
He called his vote a difficult decision. He said the bill left a lot of issues unresolved by what it says and what is unsaid, but he had to accept what I cant change.
In the end, he said he would vote for the bill because it provides a promise of economic improvement.
But he had a long list of concerns. His number one issue lay with the schools. The student body in the county could double, he warned.
Nobody knows what the impact will be, he said. The state should make up for the shortfall.
The state is expected to take in 25 percent of electronic gaming device, or slot machine, revenue. Hiatt referenced Mohegan Sun, the large casino in Connecticut, which he said generates $60 million a month in slot machine revenue. The casinos in Sullivan County, which will be closer than Mohegan Sun is to New York City, are expected to do just as well. The state will generate a lot of revenue, said Hiatt, so it can afford to help the county.
He said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation should be the lead agency in handling the environmental reviews of the casinos, since their impacts would be so vast.
The legislator was concerned with the threat posed by retail outlets operated by the tribes, who could undercut local businesses with lower prices, including gas stations.
He said he had worries about the possibility of the tribes purchasing land around the casino and taking it off the tax rolls, as some had done in upstate New York.
Hiatt said that all casinos should have an age minimum of 21 (at least one has agreed to do so). Atlantic City doesnt allow people under 21 to enter its casinos, he noted.
Hiatt also took issue with the fact that there was no provision in the bill to allow for inflation adjustments to the countys impact fee with the tribes.
Despite all of those issues, he came down in favor of the casinos and called it poetic justice that the tribes would now be taking land back.
Kathleen LaBuda, D, District 2
The most aggressive voice against the casino plan was Democratic Majority Leader Kathleen LaBuda, who unsuccessfully attempted to table the bill (which failed by a 5-4 margin).
She said the governors plan left so many unanswered questions. She warned her fellow legislators about entering a game fixed by the state and the developers, who could only win and we can only lose.
LaBuda said the decision rested on cold, hard facts. A $15 million-a-year-apiece agreement with the tribes, in place of sales and property taxes, would not be sufficient to handle a dramatic increase in enrollment at local schools, increasing crime, traffic and housing problems we cannot imagine. In addition, the operators and developers of the casinos would receive many times that $15 million in revenue, she said.
The most fervent supporters of casinos recently have been local construction workers and their out-of-county representatives, who she said would only have temporary jobs to build the casinos.
She worried that most casino visitors would never venture outside the facilities. If casinos are so great, why doesnt the governor put them next to his mansion, she asked rhetorically.
Chris Cunningham, D, District 1
Sullivan County Legislature Chairman and Democrat Chris Cunningham said he has long been opposed to casinos, but rather than state why, he said the more pressing issue was that there was good reason to postpone the bill since none of the legislatures concerns had been met by the governor.
Cunningham likened passing the bill to opening a Pandoras box. . . . This is bad negotiating strategy.
He said that the more we hear, [the more became unclear]. That should give us pause.
Sam Wohl, D, District 9
Democratic Legislator Sam Wohl offered his opinion hours before the vote, as well as in the minutes preceding his affirmative vote.
He believed casinos would lead to the revitalization of this county. He estimated that it would bring 20,000 permanent employees and 10,000 construction jobs. Sales taxes and property taxes would increase, as would housing construction.
He was confident that the Town of Thompson, which would be the host to four of the casinos, would be satisfactorily reimbursed for its impacts, as would the local schools, including Monticello School District, which encompasses four of the casinos. He said the countys $15 million a year compact (with two tribes thus far) was the best agreement the county could make.
Jodi Goodman, R, District 6
Republican Legislator Jodi Goodman, who had been the quietest of all the legislators before the vote, said, I believe our children deserve a bright future. Casinos are a step in our economic package to revitalize the county. . . . Our county must get out of the holding pattern it has been in for years.
Goodman responded to the fact that Pataki has offered the counties of northern New York 15-25 percent of the take the state receives from casinos by stating that those counties would not receive a $15 million-a-year impact fee.
Goodman also took issue with residents near Harriman who are worried what the casinos would mean to traffic at the toll booth on the New York State Thruway. How about the impact Woodbury Commons has had on Sullivan County, asked Goodman.
She said the problem in the county is that nothing is happening. The county needs more industry, she explained.
Rodney Gaebel, R, District 5
Republican Minority Leader Rodney Gaebel, who had expressed deep concerns for traffic problems and other issues in the weeks leading up to the vote, kept his comments short on Thursday.
He called the vote irresponsible by saying the legislature should have negotiated its outstanding issues with the legislation before passing it.
The countys leverage in regards to casinos rested with its approval of the legislation, he said.
I am afraid we have the cart ahead of the horse, he lamented.
Leni Binder, R, District 7
Republican Leni Binder denounced the call to delay as a tactic by the opposition to casinos, who would not be satisfied until casinos were blocked.
She said her vote was her legacy after approximately a decade of supporting casinos.
Prior to her public statements, she addressed widespread concerns for Route 42, a road already clogged by traffic at times and which would be the main gateway to two casinos in the Town of Thompson. She said that while there are problems with the road, the county should not require the state to widen the road as a condition before casinos open.
Binder said that the state allows for home rule, which means that each town controls its destiny. The county cant tell the Town of Thompson they cant have casinos, she said (the Town of Thompson Board unanimously voted to approve Patakis proposal for five casinos).
There is no provision in the states bill for a public referendum, she said.