Seneca Nation's halted casino payments: No progress, no money to state, local government

It's been three months since the Seneca Nation of Indians announced it would halt the payments from gaming revenues that it makes to New York state and the communities that host its three casinos. 

The next quarterly payment -- roughly $28 million -- would be due by the end of this month. The state and the three host cities -- Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca -- had been splitting about $110 million per year.

But there is no resolution in sight. The Senecas contend the compact they signed with the state in 2002 to open their Las Vegas-style casinos allowed them to end the payments at the end of 2016.

The state disagrees. It cites the original compact, and a follow-up memo agreed to in 2013, to argue that the payments should continue.

"Discussions are ongoing," according to an email from Lee Park, spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission. "The State has made its position clear that payments must continue. Nothing more we can add at this time."

Seneca Nation spokesman Philip Pantano, however, said "There are currently no discussions taking place with the Governor's office.

"The language of the Compact signed by the Seneca Nation and New York State in 2002 is clear and has not changed in 15 years," said Pantano, of the nation's public relations firm, Pantano & Associates of Buffalo, in an emailed statement. "The Seneca Nation had a 14-year obligation to share a portion of its slot revenues with New York State. That obligation has been faithfully fulfilled and has now ended. When the Nation made its final payment in March, President (Todd) Gates agreed to accept Governor (Andrew) Cuomo's request to meet. Since then, the Nation has heard nothing from the Governor's office regarding a specific meeting date."

In announcing their decision to stop the payments in March, the Senecas issued a statement in which they said they remain "committed to being good neighbors," and specifically said they would be willing to work the host communities ""to ensure the long term viability of our casino properties and the thousands of local jobs they support."

The Seneca Nation operates three casinos under the compact with the state: Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls; the Seneca Allegany Casino in Salamanca; and the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo.

The nation's payments go to the state, which then sends a portion to the cities of Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo. The total payments have come to more than $1.5 billion since 2002.

The 2002 compact gave the Senecas exclusive rights to operate full-service, or Vegas-style, casinos west of state Route 14 (from Sodus Point on Lake Ontario to Elmira in the Southern Tier).

This is the second time the Senecas have withheld gaming payments. Starting in 2009, they halted payments for four years  after the state authorized video gaming machines at state racetracks, including at least one within the Senecas' "exclusive" territory. That dispute was resolved by the "memorandum of understanding" the nation agreed to with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013. 

The state, meanwhile, in recent years authorized four new non-Indian operated casinos in territories not covered by the existing compact with the Senecas and two other Indian nations, the Oneidas and the St. Regis Mohawks. 

One of the new casinos is del Lago Resort & Casino, about seven miles east of Route 14 at state Thruway exit 41 near Waterloo. The Senecas have indicated they are not happy with that location.

Continued failure to resolve the issue is particularly critical to the host cities, which have smaller budgets than the state and depend on the gaming revenues.

At hearing in Niagara Falls last week, city councilman Andrew Touma said the halted casino payment is the "number one question" he gets from his constituents, according to a report at

"Obviously, the concern is there's a history there," Touma told Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, according to the report. "The city can't afford to be in that situation again."