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Cuomo announces state, tribe reach agreement; casino money to flow again

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The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the state struck a deal Tuesday to resume revenue sharing from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, ending a three-year dispute that arose over regional gaming exclusivity rights.

In addition to resuming payments of 25 percent of their yearly electronic slot machine revenues, the tribe will pay Albany half of the $60 million it has held in escrow since 2010. Franklin and St. Lawrence counties will each receive $1.8 million of that; the towns of Bombay, Fort Covington, Massena, and Brasher will each get about $960,000. Under the new deal, the state will take 10 percent of its share of slot machine monies and distribute 10 percent of that among Clinton, Essex, Hamilton, Jefferson, Warren, and Lewis counties.

The remaining $30 million in escrow will be held pending the outcomes of land claim negotiations.

“We will work to resolve land, taxation, and New York Power Authority issues,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said at the press conference, flanked by chiefs Ron LaFrance and Paul Thompson and Franklin County Legislature Chairman Billy Jones, St. Lawrence County Legislature Chairman Jonathan Putney, and state Sen. Elizabeth Little.

The tribe has withheld slot machine payments since 2010, citing a casino on the Ganienkeh reservation in Altona as a breach of their gaming exclusivity compact with the state. The deal, which the tribe signed in 2003, guaranteed them the exclusive right to operate electronic slot machines in Northern New York. Mr. Cuomo said there currently is no resolution for the Ganienkeh casino, which he said is an illegal operation.

Tuesday’s announcement came on the heels of Mr. Cuomo’s May 9 statement that he would authorize three casinos to be built in upstate New York and would allow construction in gaming exclusivity zones if a tribe was not in good standing on their compact payments.

“The state deems they (Mohawks) are in good standing,” Mr. Cuomo said Tuesday.

The Cuomo administration struck a similar deal with the Oneida Nation last month which resolved land claims as well as compact, tax, and gaming exclusivity issues.

Mr. LaFrance and Mr. Thompson said they are glad to bring the compact deal to a close so all parties concerned can focus on what they see is the real issue – the decades-old land claim.

The Mohawks say in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the state bought about 7,000 acres of the original reservation set forth in the 1796 Jay Treaty without congressional approval, which should render the transactions null. The land is in Bombay, Fort Covington, and Massena.

They also want several St. Lawrence River islands back including Barnhardt and Long Sault islands, which the New York Power Authority currently uses to operate the Long Sault Dam and Robert-Moses Power Dam.

They are also claiming title to Croil Island.

“Finances are secondary – land is important to our people,” Mr. Thompson said, adding that about 400 tribal members reside in Massena because they cannot find land or housing on the reservation.

St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said the casino revenue deal is welcome news for the cash-strapped county. She said St. Lawrence County can expect $3 million to $3.5 million in back payments for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012.

“This money was money we considered as owed to us and we actually booked as a receivable,” she said. “We have included that figure in our fund balance, so we can certainly breathe a sigh of relief now that we know it’s coming.”

Ms. St. Hilaire said annual payments for this year and beyond are expected to amount to $1.5 million to $2 million.

“This issue has been hanging out there for three years,” she said. “That’s a lot of money for the folks of St. Lawrence County.”

She credited Mr. Cuomo and the Mohawk chiefs for being willing to work together to hash out a deal.

“We had told the governor and his staff initially that if the issue was not resolved, we certainly wanted to be considered at the top of the list to have a casino,” she said. “But since the issue is resolved, I think it’s only fair.”

Staff writers Bob Beckstead, Elizabeth Lyons, and Tim Fenster contributed to this story.

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