By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO April 12, 2005 New York State Assembly leaders expressed serious questions about the passage of New York State Governor George Patakis proposal for five casinos in the Catskills on Thursday at a public hearing at the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello.
The hearing included scathing remarks about the bill by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who represents Sullivan County and parts of Orange County.
Some of the committee leaders were just as blunt in their assessment of the bill and in their questions of various speakers. After the hearing, several of them chose to be even more critical of the governors plan.
The meeting, like the recent New York State Senate hearing, was by invitation only, although committee leaders were adamant in stating that they included every speaker who made a request.
The public hearing was led by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (Democrat-Kings County), who chairs the Judiciary Committee; Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Kings County), chairman of the Committee on Oversight, Analysis, and Investigation; Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow (D-Westchester County), chairman of the Committee on Racing and Wagering; and Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, chairman of the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development. Assemblyman Ryan Karben (D-Rockland County) and Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito (D-Oneida County) also sat on the joint committee at the hearing.
The hearing followed one held in Syracuse two days earlier, which ran approximately four hours longer than this one.
After the days proceedings, Pretlow said, We have some real questions in [Patakis] motivations in settling land claims that are not valid. ... At the rate it is going now, it is questionable [whether the bill would pass].
In response to calls by Orange County leaders to widen Route 17 in order to alleviate traffic concerns, Pretlow did not believe that was possible on many sections of the road, as there is no room left.
He also said it was unfair for local property owners to absorb increased taxes due to new school construction and other infrastructure impacts, while casinos do not have to pay property taxes (or sales taxes on most of their revenue).
The legislator did not accept one of the main arguments by the pro-casino side: that the traffic would be similar to the Catskills heyday in the 1950s and 1960s when hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the region during the summer. Pretlow said there was not as much car travel back then.
Brennan said he had serious issues with the legislation. He noted that the Cayuga Nation of New York was currently in tremendous internal controversy. He said that Clint Halftown, who is recognized as the tribes federal representative, told the committee at the Syracuse hearing that he was misled by Empire Resorts over the land claim settlement with Pataki.
Brennan also said that casinos should be paying much more in taxes to the local municipalities than their current proposal of $15 million a year to the county, since some have estimated their revenues to be around $650 million, while other casino experts have said that number could climb up to or above a billion dollars, which is about what Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun generate annually.
During the hearing, Brennan criticized Empire Resorts, which is seeking to build two casinos in Sullivan County (adjacent to its Monticello Raceway facility and the Concord Resort), by stating that one of its major stockholders is a fugitive from justice and another is under criminal investigation. He said the New York State Racing and Wagering Board could require the company to liquidate those stocks, which would drive its worth down from about $200 million to $17 million. He did not state the accuseds names.
Gunther herself unleashed a passionate attack on the casinos.
This was something shoved down Sullivan Countys throat, she said. Our issues have not been addressed.
Gunther also decried the process by stating that all of the negotiations have been behind closed doors.
Several of the speakers, including Pretlow, said the governors bill, at the least, would require changes due to the recent United States Supreme Court case City of Sherill vs. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which ruled that land the nation bought around its casino was not sovereign land and indeed taxable.
Town of Thompson Supervisor Anthony Cellini was asked tough questions by the Assembly regarding what kind of deal the town would receive for hosting four of the proposed casinos. Cellini stated that the town had an agreement with Sullivan County to receive $1.65 million of the $15 million-a-year impact fee the county will receive from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans and the St. Regis Mohawks.
Morelle questioned Cellini on what a $500 million assessed property (alluding to a casino) would be taxed. Cellini responded by stating that such a company would likely go to the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency to receive tax abatements.
However, businesses in the Town of Thompson can no longer receive tax abatements from the IDA, due to a request by the town and a resolution passed by the agency.
Bruce Raynor, general president of Unite Here, a union organization, and Todd Diorio, president of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council, spoke in favor of the casinos. Both said they had agreements with the tribes to allow for unionization at the facilities.
Weinstein and other members of the Assembly were quick to point out to the speakers that the casino bill offered broad worker protection rights to those employed in casinos, something they were obviously concerned about.
Diorio and anti-casino speaker Noel van Swol of the Independent Landholders Association later got into trouble with the committee by calling the hearings stacked in favor of the opposing side. Committee members were visibly angry with the suggestion that their hearings were not open to the public, but van Swol defended his statements by saying the hearing should not have been advertised as by invitation-only and should rather have been in the form of a normal public hearing, where anybody and everybody has a chance to speak.
There was quite a lot of disagreement over how many people would actually move to Sullivan County to work at the casinos or on their construction, or for work which popped up as a result of the new gaming facilities. Pro-casino speakers minimized that impact, while opponents said it would increase substantially. The committee members were not sure, although Brennan said that depressed upstate communities could be the source of migration to the county for work.
Pretlow did not agree with a statement that 70 percent of the new casino workforce would move into the county.
Testimony was also given by environmental groups concerned with water pollution in the Basha Kill, Delaware and Neversink rivers, as well as air pollution.
Weinstein said she empathized with the environmental groups as somebody who has walked along the Basha Kill and whose family used to own a bungalow in Sullivan County.
The legislators reserved a major portion of their questions for Sullivan County Attorney Sam Yasgur.
Yasgur pointed out that the County Legislature passed a bill which supported five casinos, provided that several broad impacts are mitigated.
But the state leaders were skeptical. Morelle asked Yasgur if their conditions had been fulfilled. Yasgur said the governors office had never responded to the countys request, although he had not seen the latest revisions to the bill. Weinstein said those revisions focused mainly on labor issues.
Morelle said the County Legislature made a risky proposition by passing a bill which said it approved the legislation provided certain conditions are met, rather than saying it doesnt approve the bill until certain issues are remedied.
Michael Edelstein, president of Orange Environment, blasted the environmental review process by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is not required to review the impacts to non-Native American land.
Edelstein said a train system to Sullivan County would be necessary to mitigate the air pollution caused by all of the increased traffic. Orange County is already in violation of federal air standards.
Karben said his county would also be impacted by the pollution caused by the increased traffic.
Edward Diana, the Orange County executive, said a recent study concluded that 12,000 additional cars would travel on Route 17 each day on average to get to the casinos. A third lane is a must, he said. More traffic means more accidents and a burden on the local emergency services units, which would require additional funds.
He said the county was experiencing heavy traffic problems already on many of its road, which required additional funding from the state.
Some of the new faces at the hearing included Steve Gottlieb, commissioner of the Rock Hill Fire Department; Jim Cavello of the Rock Hill Ambulance Corps; and Arthur Brien, president of Catskill Regional Medical Center. All said the casinos would have a tremendous impact on their organizations.
Gottlieb estimated that his department would require a million more dollars a year to pay for services. They currently have a budget of $350,000. A new firehouse would cost millions.
Brien said his hospital could see a 20-40 percent increase in its budget due to five casinos in Sullivan County. Major equipment purchases such as MRI machines and CAT scanners cost over a million dollars a piece and only last about five years.
Jon Westergreen, president of the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce, clearly stated that its 1,000-plus members disagree over casinos but that a majority of them still support casinos for their economic benefits.
Other pro-casino speakers included Roberta-Byron Lockwood, CEO of the Sullivan County Visitors Association, and Ira Steingart, president of Steingart Associates, Inc. and vice chairman of the Town of Fallsburg Planning Board (although he stated he was not representing that board). Both have spoken several times in favor of casinos for their economic benefits.
During one of the breaks in the hearing, Tekarontake, a member of the Mohawk Nation, took on those representing the St. Regis Mohawks, who he said had no legal right to make agreements, since they were citizens of the United States and Canada. He said he did not want to take them to court, since he is a member of a sovereign nation.
The people who made these agreements are blinded by the dollar, he said. Is this the legacy they want to leave?