Niagara Falls and Salamanca are being misled in the funding dispute over casino payments between the Seneca Nation and New York state, an area Off Track Betting director believes.
Roger Ruckman, Chautauqua County's OTB representative, says the compact the Seneca Nation signed with the state in regard to the casinos came 11 months after New York lawmakers in 2001 approved video lottery terminals for horse racetracks, including Batavia Downs.
"The Seneca Nation did not get the nod of approval (until 2002), but we did not have the funds (in Batavia) to get set up, install the (video lottery terminals) and we did not have the personnel," Ruckman said. "So we did not get off the ground with the (terminals) till about 2005.
"I think, in that sense, the Seneca Nation preceded us with the Niagara Falls casino."
Exclusivity is the key word the Seneca Nation is using in building its case and withholding the funds from the state and cities. But the 2001 gambling package approved in Albany specifically names Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs as being permitted to have the video lottery terminals.
More concerning to the Senecas is that in 2013, the state is likely to consider table games and slot machines at the Buffalo and Batavia venues. "I am not sure anybody should be exclusive, frankly," Ruckman said in an interview this week. "I'm not sure that OTB should be exclusive or Batavia Downs. By the same token I'm not sure the casinos in Salamanca or Niagara should be exclusive."
For its part, OTB is doing something the Nation currently is not - it is sharing the wealth. Batavia Downs, which is owned by OTB, had more than $473 million in revenues from its video lottery terminals in 2011. About 8.5 percent of that money - $39.7 million - goes back to Western New York schools, cities and counties as well as racetrack operations. The remaining $433 million goes to those who participate at the track and casino.
"The bulk of that money went to education in New York state," Ruckman said. "I don't think the Seneca Nation is contributing a dime to education much less to the city of Salamanca or the city of Niagara Falls."
Ruckman emphasized he is not bitter about what the Seneca Nation makes in revenues at their casinos. More than once in the interview, he said he has empathy for the nation's plight and worked with the nation and its people in years past while he was at Fredonia State.
But it is always about the money, and the revenues brought in at Batavia Downs are spread across 15 counties, including Chautauqua and Erie. In addition, OTB officials are expecting more than half-a-billion dollars to be spent this year at the video lottery terminals.
"Regardless, I don't believe quite sincerely, that we're any necessary competition to the Senecas ... albeit this is their claim," he said noting a majority of their clientele comes from southern Monroe County, Genesee County and Wyoming County. "I don't believe (our customers) go to Salamanca or for that matter the Niagara Falls casino."
But with the battle lines drawn between cities, states and the Seneca Nation, OTB is right in the middle. Batavia Downs has made a tremendous comeback from the dark days of the late 1990s. The dispute, for now, clouds its future.
"If we are allowed to continue by virtue of the good graces of the Seneca Nation and state of New York," Ruckman said, "we will continue to contribute a lot of money, more money, to our counites and our state and the people who work for us."
John D'Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 366-3000, ext. 401.