Sunday, October 6, 2013

Westchester & Rockland Left Out in Casino Cold

New York voters will decide whether to bet on expanded casino gambling as a jackpot for state government coffers and economically adrift upstate communities.

I support the proposed November election referendum that would authorize the gambling, but Westchester and Rockland residents will bear many of the costs of any downstate stampede to casinos in the Catskills. Our communities need compensation for the drain on our infrastructure and strain on our police and emergency services. The Department of Budget confirmed last week that there will no “impact aid” for Putnam, Westchester or Rockland counties.

In 2005, a task force I appointed (as Rockland’s state assemblyman) reported that casinos then proposed for the Catskills would dramatically increase traffic passing on Rockland’s portion of the Thruway — with real consequences for air quality, traffic safety and law enforcement activity. At the same time, the panel found developing casinos in the Catskills and surrounding areas would provide a huge and needed economic boost to our construction trades and create jobs in an expanded casino-driven market for regional goods and services.
That analysis is still sound.

The Tappan Zee Bridge project at that time was stuck in place; because of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s focus, our concern in 2005 that additional traffic would utterly compromise the bridge’s safety is abated. Indeed, the successful and timely completion of the replacement bridge — a goal to which Cuomo will stick — is essential for safe movement of the hundreds of thousands of additional cars, trucks and buses coming our way.

Westchester leaders have wondered aloud about the impact of upper Hudson Valley gambling on Empire City in Yonkers. That “racino” is limited to video slot machines and related electronic games at racetracks; the casino legislation bars table game casinos in New York City and Westchester and Rockland counties.

New York City gamblers looking for an upstate thrill would pass through our region by the bus load. We have more to offer than sound barriers — and promoting our local tourism in the lower Hudson Valley must be a state priority if we are to gain additional visitors rather than lose them entirely to the blackjack tables.Casino trip marketers must include promotions and incentives for Westchester and Rockland tourism and shopping by casino patrons. Don’t look through the window, get off the bus! While reliance on retail jobs is not a comprehensive economic development strategy, malls are large property taxpayers. Attracting shoppers traveling to casinos can provide support to our commercial tax base and stop the shift in the tax burden from businesses to homeowners.

The 2005 panel reported to me and Rockland Legislature Chairwoman Harriet Cornell that $7 million in annual state aid be appropriated to the county to offset the additional costs Rockland would bear as a key traffic artery to the upstate casinos.

It is unarguable that gambling can bring increased criminal activity. Gambling traffic will bring opportunities for police investigations and traffic accidents requiring ambulance assistance. A key factor in the approval of the Palisades Center in West Nyack was additional investment in police and emergency services. The state must provide additional aid to our police departments and volunteer fire and ambulance corps for the additional burdens they will bear.

We should invest in even more construction jobs by improving our public infrastructure along Route 59 and this new, casino-driven tourist highway. State-funded flood control and traffic pattern improvements are essential.

And we need all those buses to be low emissions or our air quality will suffer significantly. Public transit agencies have made an investment in clean buses. All buses authorized to run trips to the casinos must use state-of-the-art emissions control and undergo frequent maintenance.

If the casinos can bring the economic benefits their proponents claim, those dollars must be shared with Lower Hudson Valley communities. Casinos can likely breathe new life into the economies of communities across New York, but that can’t happen at the expense of the quality of life of Westchester and Rockland families. Our region’s voters deserve a discussion of our needs before casting casino referendum ballots in November.

This article first appeared on lohud.com on October 5, 2013.  View it here.