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Gray calls county’s role in land claims settlement nothing more than political theater

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MASSENA - This past summer Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said he was assured the town of Massena would be included in the negotiating of a land claims settlement between the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, St. Lawrence County and New York state, something that he now says did not happen.

“At the end of July I was summoned to Albany by the governor’s office to discuss the land claims. In that meeting I was assured that negotiations would continue with the town of Massena playing a role,” he said. “This was apparently a lie. I don’t know who lied to me, but I’ll lay that at the governor’s feet. His staff lied to me, so I consider that a lie from the governor.”

Mr. Gray also added that since the county participated in the negotiations and was willing to leave both the towns of Massena and Brasher out of the discussions, he feels they played a role in the lie.

“St. Lawrence County was a willing lap dog and accomplice in that lie,” he said.

The settlement was announced early Wednesday afternoon in a release from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Upon reading the release, Mr. Gray said the final settlement was different than the version of the agreement he was familiar with.

“The last I knew we were talking about 500 acres, but this press release says 1,300 acres,” he said, adding it is his understanding the land to be turned over is “pretty much the entire hamlet of Rooseveltown.”

Even if the settlement were approved as he recalled it tMr. Gray said he would not have been happy with the deal.

“I believe the town of Massena is receiving a pittance in return for its loss of part of itself,” he said. “Brasher and Massena should be receiving more than the county, and to be honest, Brasher should be receiving more than Massena, as they’re losing more acreage.”

While Mr. Gray said his understanding of the final deal was each town would receive $725,000, down from the $750,000 that was originally discussed.

Legislators Jonathan Putney and Anthony “Tony” Arquiett said that’s not the case, noting the $4 million the county will receive in perpetuity will be shared between the towns, the county and each community’s school district. Mr. Arquiett noted both St. Lawrence Central and Massena Central will receive $500,000 each year, while both Brasher and Massena will receive $750,000, in addition to their gaming compact revenues.

Mr. Arquiett said that adds up to $1.25 million for Brasher and $1.25 million for Massena each year, with the county receiving $1.5 million.

Mr. Gray said he doesn’t fault the tribe for negotiating a deal that’s in their best interest, rather he faults the state and county.

Benefits for the tribe include an annual payment of $2 million from the New York Power Authority, “up to 9 megawatts” of power at NYPA’s lowest rate, and free tuition and fees for enrolled tribe members who qualify for admission to any SUNY school.

“I understand the Mohawk’s interest in getting this settled. It was good business for them,” he said. “The town of Massena has no connection with them other than being neighbors. However, we have an inextricable relationship with the county and state, and any trust that may have been there has been broken.”

Mr. Gray said he heard about the settlement after receiving a phone call from Mr. Arquiett Wednesday afternoon, who told him the county had signed a memorandum of understanding with the tribe and the governor’s office.

“It didn’t surprise me, but it was certainly disappointing. We had grave concerns about the settlement which was forced upon us by the county. We made it very clear that we wanted more details before any MOU was signed,” he said. “The county has not been truthful with us during these negotiations, nor has the county been able to articulate a telling argument as to why they get lion’s share of the settlement.”

According to the settlement, the county will receive a one time payment of $2 million from the state and $1.5 million from the tribe, plus the annual payment of $1.5 million.

“The county loses nothing in this whole process. We, however, will lose a portion of our town and an entire community,” Mr. Gray said. “This agreement is short-sighted and, from what I see, based on the county’s desperate need for more cash to feed its spending addiction.”

Mr. Gray also said he feels like it’s a mistake to connect the agreement with gaming compact revenue in any way.

“We don’t know how long profits will last at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. There is no guarantee they will continue. What if the bridge closes again? What if the province of Ontario opens a casino in Cornwall? How will five more casinos in the state affect the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino’s profits. I have asked these questions repeatedly and have not yet received an answer.”

According to Mr. Gray’s understanding of the agreement, both the St. Lawrence Central School District and Massena Central School District will receive payments of $500,000, something he said was driven by the desire for those involved to get re-elected to office.

“We were not involved, and we certainly didn’t decide to give the school districts a million dollar. What are the school district’s losing?” he asked. “That portion of this settlement was driven by the legislators need to get re-elected and the fact that Mr. Putney’s paycheck comes from the Massena school district.”

Calling the deal as a whole, “woefully inadequate,” Mr. Gray called Wednesday’s release and the photo that came with it “political theater.”

“It’s nice that legislators Putney and Arquiett were able to travel to Albany for a nifty photo op with the governor, which was done for obvious political reasons. Unfortunately that piece of political theater has cost the town of Massena dearly.”

Mr. Putney though disagreed.

“We believe we have reached a fair and equitable settlement that helps to resolve on issue that has been ongoing for more than 30 years,” he said, adding he doesn’t understand why Mr. Gray feels like the town is losing land.

“The town’s land is not being taken away any more than the county’s land,” he said. “It’s a willing buyer, willing seller scenario,” he said. “No one is going to lose their land to eminent domain or the tribe.”

Mr. Arquiett added, “No property owner will ever have to sell their land if they don’t want to.”

As for the breakdown of the state’s financial compensation, Mr. Putney said the county has no obligation to share any of the money it is receiving.

“We are certainly interested in being fair and equitable,” he said. “The reality is the county is not obligated to share any of that money.”

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