By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO March 4, 2005 New York State Senator John Bonacic presided over a casino hearing yesterday which ran nearly four hours in front of a full house at the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello.
The hearing was meant to address the impacts that five casinos would have on the county.
The State Senate is currently mulling New York State Governor George Patakis proposal to settle land claims with Native American tribes by offering them five casinos, which they intend to build in Sullivan County.
Although Bonacic said he was inundated with over 100 requests to speak, only 16 people were permitted to speak.
The speakers included Sullivan County and Orange County officials, pro and anti-casino groups, as well as tribal representatives.
Perhaps the most forceful statements of the day came from Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen and Sullivan County Sheriff Dan Hogue, who highlighted the effect that five casinos would have on public safety, namely increased crime and traffic accidents.
Lungen was concerned over how the main exits/entrances to the Town of Thompson would be able to handle millions of new daily visitors who theoretically would be arriving at the casinos. Both he and Hogue said they had not been consulted on the Spectrum Gaming Report the County Legislature paid for to study the impacts of casinos.
The district attorney, who was born and raised in the county, said the assertions that the traffic and infrastructure issues casinos would generate would be comparable to the 1950s and 1960s was ludicrous.
He said there werent as many cars, there wasnt a crack epidemic, and the courthouse and probation system werent clogged. Other speakers during the hearing stated that many of those who visited the Catskills during its heyday would spend long periods of time here, as opposed to casino visitors, who would be day travelers.
Hogue said five casinos would cause a large increase in crime due to the increased population, which would necessitate a new county jail and increased department workforce. He said the jail currently is close to full capacity, and he would have to start exporting prisoners if a jail wasnt ready by the time construction of the casinos began.
William Pammer, Sullivan County Commissioner for Planning and Community Development, estimated that the population of the county could increase approximately 25 to 55 percent as a result of casinos.
He said infrastructure capacity would need substantial improvement, including local roads. He mentioned the budget strains local townships are currently under.
Most importantly for Pammer was that the state bill should specifically articulate how money for a Catskill-Shawangunk Environmental and Community Protection Fund, which could receive up to $50 million, is allocated.
Pammer said the legislation should clarify how the money would be distributed, and exactly how much it would include. Furthermore, he said the area that is the Catskill-Shawangunk has undefined boundaries.
A day earlier, Bonacic said he would set the fund at $50 million, which would go to Sullivan County for education, health care, affordable housing, transportation, public safety, transportation and for open space.
Dr. Martin Handler, the District Superintendent of Schools, said the Monticello Fallsburg schools would be most heavily impacted by the casinos and would need to build additional facilities. Those costs alone would far surpass the $50 million fund.
Furthermore, he said that five other school districts had little or no excess capacity left. He noted that the Liberty school district is currently considering the construction of new facilities.
In addition, school budgets would dramatically increase as a result of the influx of thousands of students. The Spectrum report estimated approximately 5,000 new students for three casinos.
He noted that the casinos would be off the tax rolls, thus leaving the school districts to raise property taxes to cover the new burden of students and school construction. He said the state must cover the added costs.
He also touched on the impact fee the county has arranged with two tribes thus far. That fee has no mechanism to fund local schools, he said.
Steve Knutsen, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Rock Hill and also representing Casino-Free Sullivan County, continued his groups calls for a referendum, while decrying the casino bill as immoral in that many people would be hurt. He said casinos only benefit a few rich people, while the majority loses. He said he had witnessed the impact that the lottery had on local families.
Sullivan County Attorney Sam Yasgur expressed deep worry on what the tribes would be able to build on their properties, aside from casinos. According to the current legislative bill, they could use their land, some of which includes up to 400 acres, for anything, even their own mini-Woodbury Commons, which could become tax-exempt and undercut local businesses.
Throughout the hearing, Bonacic asked questions of the speakers, including whether a highway ramp would be feasible to connect to the proposed casino at the current Kutshers Sports Academy, to which Town of Thompson Highway Superintendent Richard Benjamin agreed.
Bonacic also stated that he was no longer pushing for a referendum on the issue but would do so if the County Legislature asked him to.
The day also featured comments by pro-casino speakers such as Roberta Byron-Lockwood of the Sullivan County Visitors Association, who spoke glowingly of the benefits casinos would have on local business and the tourism industry.
President Jon Westergreen of the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce and President Marc Baez of the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development both said the majority of their members supported five casinos, although there was some dissension among their respective bodies. That disagreement differed depending on which way the question was posed, said Baez.
Todd Diorio, representing the Hudson Valley Building Trades Council, reiterated his organizations support for casinos, since it will increase work and pay for its members.
Robert Chicks, President of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, and William Gollnick, General Manager and Chief of Staff for the Oneidas of Wisconsin, both pledged to cooperate with the county and state.
Chicks said his tribe had agreed to hire union labor for construction and has an agreement with the hotel workers union. He said the tribe would provide competitive wages and employee benefits, including health insurance. He anticipated providing unemployment insurance and workers compensation to the casino employees.