By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO March 8, 2005 A State Senate hearing last Thursday in Monticello regarding New York State Governor George Patakis plan for five casinos in Sullivan County followed a controversial Senate hearing held in Albany.
With New York State Senator John Bonacic presiding, speakers representing Native American tribes, the New York State Department of Transportation, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, convenience stores, the hotel industry, and pro-casino and anti-casino factions spoke about the impacts the casinos would have.
Several anti-casino individuals who were barred from speaking were upset with the decision, but Bonacic was pleased with the way the hearings proceeded and cited information provided to him which showed that casinos would generate jobs and improve the economy in the county.
He also said he was pleased that the DOT would be setting up an office in the Town of Thompson and would be studying the traffic impacts to the town, where four casinos would be located, per Patakis bill.
I am very comfortable with the legislation, said Bonacic.
Thats an apparent shift from just weeks earlier when he expressed concerns over a myriad of issues relating to the impacts of casinos, particularly traffic.
However, Bonacic said he will propose amendments to the legislation, including one to limit what kind of commercial use the tribes may have on their land. He said he wants to limit that use to resort-related business only. He would bar gas stations and other retail shops.
The current legislation is too broad, in his view, and allows for the tribes to basically do anything they want on the property.
Another amendment would be to alter the $50 million fund to protect open space in the area and redirect that money towards a community fund for education, health care, affordable housing, transportation, the environment, fire and safety. Bonacic said that fund would still amount to $50 million, but it was not clear if that is a yearly amount or a one-time offering.
He once again reiterated that the Sullivan County Legislature would retain control over the future of casinos through their service agreements with the tribes. Those agreements are mandated before any casino can be built.
So far, the county has a $15 million-a-year impact fee arrangement with the St. Regis Mohawks for a casino at Kutshers Sports Academy, and one with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans for a casino in Bridgeville.
Together with the community fund, that arrangement is significantly different from the counties of Erie and Niagara, which would receive a minimum of 25 percent of the revenue the state receives from the electronic gaming devices in local casinos. Cattaraugas, Chautauqua and Allegany would receive a minimum of 15 percent of the revenue the state receives from the gaming machines.
The state would take 25 percent of the slot machine revenue from the Turning Stone Casino and is expected to follow-through with similar arrangements with the other casinos.
Sullivan County has no arrangement to receive any percentage of the revenues from the casinos. Yet its casinos would likely be more profitable than the upstate ones, due to its proximity to New York City.
The senator agreed with testimony by the DEC which called on each tribe which plans to have a casino in Sullivan County conduct an environmental impact study regarding all five, rather than the studies that some have done for three.
Bonacic said he was pushing to pass the legislation by July, before the United States Congress adjourns. He continued to rebuff the large amount of calls for a referendum in Sullivan County. He said he would only do so with a resolution from the County Legislature. Most of the legislators have opposed such a move.
Callicoon Center resident Dick Riseling, who spoke on behalf of Casino-Free Sullivan County at the hearings, said he believed his comments were not taken seriously. None of the officials at the hearings asked him any questions. He called it a public parade rather than an investigative inquiry.
During his testimony, Riseling stated that the costs for new school construction and their increasing budgets due to the influx of thousands of new students would exceed the money currently promised to the county.
He noted remarks made by Warren Buffet, the second richest man in America, calling casinos a regressive tax which would not lead to economic development. He also referred to Paul Samuelson, a leading economist, who stated casinos would not improve the economy.
If casinos do come, Riseling was in step with Bonacic, calling for the tribes to be barred from building any retail outlets which would seriously impact local businesses.
Riseling said a commission must be set up in which a cost/benefit analysis and a cumulative impact study on five casinos would be put together.
Riseling said that the improvements necessary for local roads due to casinos and the funds necessary for public safety would also far surpass the money currently being offered.
Ira Steingart, who traveled to Albany to represent the Catskill Casino Coalition in support of the bill, said that he came away with a positive feeling that the Senate is doing due diligence in dealing with the casino plan.
He noted as positives the senators remarks that the DOT would be setting up an office in the town and would be studying traffic impacts, and that the tribes would be required to conduct full environmental reviews.