Legislator wants casino host benefits for town of Verona

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Oneida County Legislator Keith Schiebel, whose district is home to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino, wants casino host benefits for the town of Verona earmarked in next year’s county budget.

The town does not receive payments from the county’s share of gaming revenue received under a 2013 agreement like some surrounding municipalities do where the Oneidas own tax-free property. The nation does not pay property or sales taxes because of sovereignty. The settlement created an alternative revenue stream.

As a result of the deal that involved the state, the Oneidas, and Oneida and Madison counties, Oneida County gets a 25 percent share of the slot machine revenue the nation sends to the state. The county, in turn, has chosen to share some of this money with towns and villages, as well as other entities, that have been impacted by the tribe’s land purchases within their boundaries.

However, neither Verona nor the town of Vernon receive host benefits even though they are the two towns most affected by the Oneidas’ land purchases. That’s because the agreement that ended long-standing tax and trust land disputes stipulated that if a municipality pursued legal action contesting the deal or trust land, it could not receive county payments funded through gaming revenue that resulted from the agreement. Both towns did become parties to a lawsuit challenging the agreement. Had it not sued, Verona could have sought host benefits at the outset. Verona has since dropped out of the lawsuit.

As a result, Schiebel, R-1, Vernon, who is up for re-election this year, said Monday it is time for Verona to be allowed to join entities like the city of Sherrill, the villages of Vernon and Sylvan Beach, town of Augusta, and Vernon-Verona-Sherrill School District, as well as the Verona Fire District/Department, in getting a share of the county’s gaming revenue. The department provides fire protection for the casino.

Schiebel sent a letter to County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr., Board of Legislators Chairman Gerald J. Fiorini, R-7, Rome, and Majority Leader George E. Joseph, R-10, Westmoreland, asking that the host benefits issue be addressed in the 2018 budget deliberations.

“Since the town officials have ended the lawsuit, it is time to move forward for the benefit of Verona,” said the legislator. “By partnering with the county, the town of Verona is now eligible to receive its fair share of the gaming revenue.”

Schiebel said the town of Vernon is not included in his request because it is his understanding that Vernon is still challenging the federal government’s designation of trust land in Oneida and Madison counties for the Oneidas.

The Oneida Nation owns about 17,000 acres of land in the two counties, as well as numerous businesses and enterprises, including Turning Stone Resort Casino, SavOn gas stations and several marinas.

The host benefit request comes as Picente and his administration are in the midst of crafting next year’s spending plan. He is scheduled to submit his budget to the Board of Legislators Oct. 5.

Picente said Tuesday he will take a look at Schiebel’s request.

However, he said as part of his 2018 budget he is also examining whether the current benefits arrangement for the city of Sherrill, towns and villages — though not school districts — should be modified. The money is currently sent as a payment with no conditions on how it is spent.

Looking ahead, Picente says he’s contemplating whether the host benefit money might be tied to projects.

The county executive said it was always his intent to hold harmless entities impacted by the Oneidas’ land purchases.

“I’ve always wanted everyone affected to have a share,” he said.

Picente said it was his hope at the outset that recipients would use the money to reduce their annual property tax levies. He now wants to take at look at how it has been being used.

In 2016, about $1.5 million was shared with the municipalities, the fire district and school districts.

County legislator hopeful Michael J. Hennessy of Sherrill, who is running against Schiebel, said the incumbent is “just copying” what he’s been saying all along.

“I think both towns should get the benefit. Long overdue,” said the former county legislator. “It’s a tragedy what’s happened to Vernon and Verona in the last couple of years.”

He says the 2013 settlement ought to be re-evaluated because payouts under agreements covering other Indian casinos elsewhere in New York are higher. He said a larger payout locally would provide relief to businesses and taxpayers.

“I am coming in as an independent and am not tied to any past deals,” he said.

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