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Tribal compact money for St. Lawrence County discussed in Albany

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County officials came away from a Thursday meeting in Albany on gaming compact revenue optimistic that the state at least understands their dilemma even though no promises were made to expect the money soon.

“They didn’t close the door to a positive outcome, either,” said Legislator Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington. “I think our effort shows we’re trying to work with the state and trying to make a fiscal situation not get worse.”

Mr. Putney was part of a contingent that met with Robert Williams, a point man for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Indian affairs, over the more than $12 million that is owed to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Bombay and Fort Covington. Under a deal between the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the money represents the counties’ and towns’ combined share of proceeds from the reservation’s casino.

Because of a dispute over a slot machine operation on Ganienkeh Territory in Altona, the St. Regis Mohawks maintain their exclusivity rights have been violated. They have withheld payments, instead placing money owed the state and the local municipalities in escrow. That has left yawning financial holes in governmental budgets.

“It was a very useful meeting. He listened to us very, very openly,” said Board of Legislators Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, of Mr. Williams. “We fully expected a different response, so we were very pleased.”

The state is waiting for Paul O. Thompson to take office as chief, after which it hopes to negotiate with the tribe.

“It’s important to us negotiations start as soon as possible and hopefully don’t drag on,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg. “They’re the two entities that have to work that out. There’s a lot going on, not just here, but on other reservations in the state.”

Mr. Burns said he thought the group was able to impress upon Mr. Williams St. Lawrence County’s need for the approximately $3 million it is due from last year and this year as it nears budget deliberations for next year. The county’s fund balance could dip below $1 million by year’s end. It has to pay back $8.5 million by the end of August that it borrowed last year because of a cash crunch and it is owed up to $12 million from the state in back payments of various kinds.

“We need it resolved by Aug. 1, or we’ll do what we need to do,” Mrs. Brothers said. “There’s a lot of different options.”

Among those could be a lawsuit against the state.

“We’re prepared to move forward with possible litigation,” said Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena. “We believe this is contractually owed money to us. Our issue is mostly with New York state. We can’t just leave that money out there.”

Brasher also needs its share of the money, which could amount to $1.5 million if it were brought up to date, said Supervisor M. James Dawson.

“I know we had some big plans,” he said. “We need to utilize the assets we have.”

Brasher wants to take advantage of trails that run through Brasher State Forest by building horse barns to host two major equestrian events annually, he said.

Money from the casino compact is supposed to be used for economic development and has gone to the county Industrial Development Agency, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the county Chamber of Commerce, among other groups.

With the exception of the IDA, which has a contract with the county, some groups might not have his support for funding in the future, Mr. Burns said.

“I’d be reluctant to spend money from tribal compact funds if the money is not there,” he said. “It’s a significant amount.”

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