ALBANY – Days after the Seneca Nation and Cuomo administration settled one thorny dispute, a new one arose Thursday with a top adviser of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo saying he has “deep concern” about the tribe’s possible plan to open a gas station on the grounds of its Niagara Falls casino complex.
In a letter to Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter, Howard Glaser, director of state operations, said a request for proposal for an “upscale” convenience store and gas station on Niagara Street “has caused consternation among many local business and community leaders.”
In the letter – which Seneca officials said was sent to the media before Porter received it – Glaser wrote: “I am certain you are aware” that the compact signed a decade ago by the Seneca Nation and New York State called for allowing only commercial ventures on the site that are “traditionally associated” with a casino operation.
“Regardless of any complex legal issues, I share the community’s deep concern about the potential impact on small business that the potential Seneca operation may have,” Glaser wrote, “particularly in light of the fact that Niagara Falls has not received a dime from the Nation’s $600 million in annual casino revenues – tax-free income, which in turn would be used to create tax-free businesses to compete with existing small business owners who pay their fair share of state and local obligations.”
In a pointed response to Cuomo, the Seneca Nation president called on the governor to stop letting “subordinates mismanage” the state’s relations with the tribe.
Porter also called Glaser’s suggestion that the tribe cannot engage in such activities as a gas station at the Niagara Falls casino “revisionist bordering on the absurd.” Porter noted that casinos across the country offer a range of nongambling business activities, such as convenience stores, and that it is the responsibility of the Seneca Gaming Corp., as a for-profit enterprise, to look at ventures to benefit both its patrons and the company’s bottom line.
The Senecas already sell tax-free cigarettes and gasoline on reservation lands, and any gasoline station in Niagara Falls the tribe might build would presumably be tax-free, as well, thereby undercutting nearby non-Native American retailers.
The state and Seneca Nation have been at odds for several years now over the payment of revenue-sharing money from the tribe’s three Western New York casinos. The tribe owes more than $400 million to Albany, which in turn is supposed to share a portion of the funds with the local “host” communities of Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. The tribe says the state has broken the terms of the casino compact by allowing new forms of gambling into its casino exclusivity zone in the region, a claim the state denies.
Niagara Falls is owed $58 million in casino revenue sharing payments for the past three years, a sum that is increasingly pinching the city’s finances.
In his letter to Porter, Glaser urged settling another deal – which, he said, the Seneca leader had once accepted – to have the Seneca Nation pay what Niagara Falls is owed, with the amount being taken as a credit against its larger tab of more than $400 million.
Glaser wrote that Niagara Falls has been an “honorable” host to the Seneca Nation, which he said has grossed more than $4.5 billion from its casino.
Porter, however, said Glaser misrepresented where the tribe stood on paying the local share of casino revenue sharing. He said it was the Seneca Nation that first made the offer with the previous governor, David A. Paterson, but that the offer was rejected. Moreover, he said it is the state that has the “fiduciary obligation” to protect the local governments that Albany insisted be a part of the original casino deal a decade ago.
“It amazes me that the State of New York – with a $133 billion annual budget – cannot find it within its means to support its own citizens and their local governments by fronting a few million dollars to insulate them from the economic impact of the state’s breach of our gaming compact,” Porter wrote Cuomo. Porter also called on the administration to end its “media diplomacy” in dealing with the Senecas and to meet personally with Seneca leaders.
The latest disagreement between the Senecas and the state comes after Monday’s settlement of a feud that had stalled a 12-mile road rehabilitation project along the Southern Tier Expressway on the tribe’s Allegany reservation.