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St. Lawrence County hires law firm for compact money

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County took a step closer to a lawsuit over $3 million in unpaid gaming compact money with the hiring Monday of a Syracuse law firm.

The board, with three legislators dissenting, agreed to retain Wladis Law Firm to advise the county and to represent it should it decide to sue.

“There’s no commitment other than to establish an attorney/client relationship,” County Attorney Michael C. Crowe said.

In June, legislators and county officials met with a representative of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to state their case for 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.

The money has been held in escrow because of a exclusivity dispute St. Regis Mohawks have with a slot machine operation on Ganienkeh Territory in Altona, but Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, believes another factor is also in play.

“This issue is about taxation of cigarettes and over casinos run by others,” he said. “Everything’s tied together. Relying on gambling money is a problem.”

County officials met recently with tribal representatives, including newly elected chief Paul O. Thompson. Included in the talks were whether the tribe and county could work their own deal. The door was left open but there was no real interest, Legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, said.

As the compact money has not been forthcoming for last year and this year, the county’s budget along with those of the towns of Brasher and Massena have suffered. The county’s financial state is precarious as its fund balance is expected to be low by the end of the year and it borrowed $8.5 million last August for operating expenses which it is expected to pay back soon.

“Neither the state nor the tribe are willing to move in an expeditious way to help St. Lawrence County,” Legislator Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said.

At its meeting in Albany, county officials told state representatives legal action was possible to recoup the money.

“That’s where we’re at,” Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said. “There is no movement.”

Rather than start a lawsuit, Mr. Akins said the county needs to start work on how it will get along without the money.

Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Madrid, who voted against hiring Wladis along with Mr. Acres and Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, said the decision to hire the firm was last minute and that an adequate search was not conducted.

“I don’t believe we’ve even looked at a law firm in St. Lawrence County,” Mr. Akins said. “I feel this is a knee-jerk reaction.”

Mr. Parker, who tried unsuccessfully to table the resolution, said it was unclear what Wladis will do.

Mrs. Brothers said a committee of legislators will meet with the firm, set out objectives and determine whether a lawsuit makes sense. The total cost to the county might run $50,000 to $100,000 depending on whom is sued and how it is handled, she said. Wladis was retained on an unspecified per hour basis.

Mr. Acres said there had been talk the law firm could lobby state representatives on behalf of the county for an increase in its sales tax, but Mrs. Brothers said that was not included.

The county’s decision to join forces with Wladis applies only to itself, but other municipalities affected will be welcome to join if they want to share the cost, she said.

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