Hugh Reynolds: Gambling on the future

Dave O'Halloran. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Dave O’Halloran. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Serious conflict has developed between the owners of the vacant Nevele in Ellenville and operators of two family-owned resorts in the Town of Rochester over who gets video lottery terminals (VLTs, the equivalent of electronic slot machines.)

Hopes for a mega-million-dollar casino at the Nevele were dashed when a state gaming commission chose a site in nearby Sullivan County. Nevele promoters reloaded with a plan to establish a sports destination resort on the 500-acre site. The Ellenville Million committee, charged with the resuscitation of the once-thriving village, is solidly behind the proposal, which the developers say needs VLTs in order to attract investors.

Pinegrove Ranch and the Hudson Valley Resort in Rochester are also seeking state approval for VLTs at their facilities. When it comes to gambling, Pinegrove owner Dave O’Halloran says the resorts are not in direct competition with each other or with the Nevele. “Our VLTs would be used as an enhancement for our guests,” he told the county legislature last week. “We’re a family operation. We’re not interested in gamblers coming in off the street to gamble.”

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Hudson Valley Resort owner Eliot Spitzer (not that Eliot Spitzer) takes the same position.

O’Halloran says his resort can remain profitable without VLTs, at least in the short-term. Not so for Spitzer, who said he needs the kind of cash infusion gambling would generate. The Ulster legislature, for what it’s worth, threw its support behind the Rochester resort owners, despite heavy lobbying by Nevele interests. Wawarsing legislators T.J. Briggs and Craig Lopez joined majority leader Don Gregorius on the losing end of the 20-3 vote, which did not mention the Nevele.

It is generally understood that New York State, having sided with Sullivan County in the casino siting process, will be reluctant to bet against itself by establishing gambling in nearby precincts. As such, a bill allowing VLTs in Ulster County sponsored by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill but disparaged by state Sen. John Bonacic, will most likely languish in committee until Sullivan is up and running.

Demolition derby

States of the state (or counties or cities) give ample evidence why legislative forms of government don’t work. Rambling from one banality to the next — “hands across the aisle” is a frequent theme — these annual snooze-athons give audiences ample opportunity to check out the ceiling tiles. But sometimes, like at last Tuesday’s annual state of the county address by legislature leaders, news breaks out.

Democratic Majority Leader Gregorius took the occasion not to praise Caesar but to bury him. Here I refer not to County Executive Mike Hein, the emperor of Ulster, but to legislature Chairman John Parete, the Woodstocker’s nominal leader.

Parete, Gregorius contended, nursing an old wound, had shafted fellow Democrats by ignoring their committee requests last January and bumping them off committees on which they had served for years. Worse, Gregorius charged, Parete gave Republicans almost everything they wanted.

John Parete. (Photo: Dan Barton)

John Parete. (Photo: Dan Barton)

Through it all Parete, seated not 10 feet behind Gregorius as the majority leader heaped him with bile, smiled benignly. The fact is Parete, with the unanimous support of the 10-member Republican minority, whom he richly rewarded in the only way he could, is chairman and Gregorius is not.

Such are the dynamics of this 13-10 Democratic majority. Parete, his son Richard and a spare vote or two hook up with the minority and elect as chairman a legislator the majority of the majority may not like. In some places, they call that coalition government. In Ulster, it’s called open warfare.

I asked Gregorius about his in-your-face condemnation of his alleged leader and fellow party member. I didn’t think anybody’s ever seen a Democrat attack a Democratic chairman in a speech like that before.

His reply was as succinct as it was revealing. “What Democrat?” he said. Just for the record, Parete is a former county Democratic chairman and Democratic elections commissioner.

In terms of politics, the address by Minority Leader Ken Ronk was brilliant. While uttering virtually nothing of substance — Gregorius at least picked up on “39 resolutions” his caucus had advanced — Ronk praised each and every member of the minority except, perhaps owing to modesty, minority leader Ronk.

Parete chose not to deliver a chairman’s state of the county, opting instead, for a visit to the men’s room. Why not? “I think he said enough,” Parete replied with a nod toward Gregorius.

The divisive Ulster legislature provides good theater. And for that, I thank them all.

Taxing times

The expiration of the sales-tax agreement between the City of Kingston and Ulster County is almost a year away, but already the towns are agitating for a bigger piece of the pie.

Under the current formula, the county keeps 85 percent of the projected $108 million in annual revenues, with the city getting 12 percent and the 20 towns splitting among themselves three percent. The towns are not recognized under the original agreement, dating to the mid-1970s and renewed several times since. Ergo, the county and the city would have to agree to give the towns a greater share, and that funding would come from the existing pot. The odds of Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo or County Exec Hein cheerfully giving up even a crumb from this cash cow are long.

Hein, on his part can argue that, albeit with a nudge from Assemblyman Cahill, his administration has already relieved the towns and the city of some $7 million a year in Safety Net and elections expenses.

But that won’t keep the towns from lobbying for more sales-tax revenue, of course. Collectively, the towns, which outnumber the city by almost eight to one in population, should have a stronger voice in how sales-tax funds are distributed.

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Rochester Supervisor Carl Chipman, chairman of the county association of towns, villages and the city, says his group has begun to talk about petitioning the county for a greater share of sales-tax revenue. He isn’t saying how much of an ask, but another 1 percent would generate about $1.3 million in current revenues. Presumably, those monies would be distributed under the current formula which takes into account assessed value and population.

These formulae are not written in stone. Dutchess County keeps about 82 percent of its sales tax but distributes the remainder about equally between its numerous towns and two cities.

With 23 Ulster legislators running for reelection this year, along with the county executive, the prospect of bringing home more bacon could prove alluring to the solons.