Genesee County Legislature Chair Rochelle Stein expressed “shock and surprise” today over the circumstances surrounding the profound changes made to the structure and voting parameters of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.’s board of directors.
On Tuesday night, it was announced that language in the just-adopted state budget includes a bill to dismantle the current 17-member board and revoke the one-person, one-vote arrangement that has been in effect for 50 years.
“I was not of the understanding, quite frankly, that this was going to be part of the budget,” Stein said by telephone. “That to me was a shock and a surprise. It is surprising the policy is so wrapped up in a financial document.”
Stein segmented her thoughts into specific areas affected by the legislation, namely the removal of the 17 current directors, the appointment process, the weighted voting format, the county legislature having to appoint or reappoint the director and the host agreement status of Genesee County, the Town of Batavia and the City of Batavia.
DISMISSAL OF CURRENT BOARD?
“What is even more surprising is that it calls for the immediate removal of the 17 current directors, and the counties will be faced with reappointing or appointing a new director,” she said. “Directors, for counties without executives, would be chosen by boards of supervisors or county legislators.”
Richard Siebert has been Genesee County’s director on the WROTB board for nearly 30 years.
Although the process of selecting a director for Genesee County wouldn’t change, it would have to start from scratch as a result of the new provision.
“When we get the bill back, the bill itself, we will work with our county attorney to ensure that when actions must be taken, we will have to comply with the law,” she noted. “That’s number two.”
The third point she addressed is what she called “the incredible change to a weighted voting (system).”
“If my math is correct, 62 percent of the vote will be held by Monroe and Erie counties and the cities of Rochester and Buffalo,” she said. “What means to me is that an organization that is returning funds back to its owner municipalities – and is proven to be highly successful – … will see a reduction in the influence and the leadership and guidance that has proven valuable for this organization to grow …”
Stein said that the county has reaped exponential returns from the initial $23,000 investment it made in 1974 to buy into the public benefit corporation.
“I know that this county has been well benefited by those returns,” she said. “And we in Genesee County are more impacted because we currently have host agreements with the Downs as we provide to the entity fire, public safety, highway services. Since OTB is a non-taxpaying entity for property taxes. So, these three communities -- the county, town and city -- receive a host benefit.”
A POLITICAL POWER GRAB?
Stein, echoing several Republican state representatives, called the bill “a power grab.”
“It’s so political, and it has been so toxic because of certain individuals,” she said. “The rest of us still have to maintain a decorum where we can get business done at the Downs and at OTB because record profits have been shared out to counties.”
She noted that revenue is shared through a “home rule” statute that was passed many years ago by the state legislature and approved by the governor.
“All that could change, but I hope it doesn’t,” she added.
The legislature chair also said she was disappointed that the county’s representatives in Albany were unable to read the bill beforehand.
“George Borrello and Steve Hawley were not able to read that bill until after it was passed. So again, the three people in a room (actually two men and Gov. Kathy Hochul) have not served us well at all here in New York State,” she said.
Stein also spoke about the state Comptroller’s audit that found deficiencies in certain areas that triggered State Sen. Tim Kennedy’s push for board restructuring.
“OTB is just like any other public entity,” she said. “They’re audited. There are deficiencies found. The organization has an opportunity to address the deficiencies and to improve or change aberrations.
“That's exactly the same behavior pattern that we have in our local governments that the OTB just underwent, and they certainly have taken those deficiencies, and they've corrected them. They took those words and made themselves stronger, better and more resilient.”
SEN. KENNEDY’S STATEMENT
The Batavian sought comment from Kennedy today, but his media manager said he was unavailable today.
She did email a statement from him, however:
“We talk a lot in the state legislature about prioritizing accountability and transparency - about rooting out corruption. Last night, we created an opportunity to deliver on that. From audits to investigations, the Western Regional OTB has been plagued with a pattern of mismanagement and misconduct for years, and a slap on the wrist isn't going to fix this behavior long-term.
“By including a reform I've sponsored to restructure the OTB's board in this year's budget, we're introducing an opportunity for fair representation that serves the public good. This is a common-sense, good government policy, and it's a reflection of the real, meaningful work we continue to advance on behalf of Western New Yorkers.”
Stein took exception to the use of the word “corruption.”
“That's a really strong word. The value that we have in our rural county representatives is that actually most of them know how to run a business. So, they have been sharing their expertise and guidance for years, which has proven beneficial to the off-track betting, to Batavia Downs, to the plans to grow the opportunities here in Genesee County.”
RETALIATION IN PLAY?
She also said the bill reinforces the perception that “only New York City matters to the powers-that-be in Albany.”
“For the state only to look at Western New York when there are four others (OTBs) really makes this smack of retaliation, it makes it smack of It makes it smacks of a power play. For an organization that is returning funds back to its member counties, it is throwing away years of guidance and leadership and business development at OTB and the Downs.”
Stein concluded by recalling something that Siebert said to her about the merging of Batavia Downs and WROTB.
“One thing that Mr. Siebert told me a long time ago was when the racetrack was approached by OTB to join together, they were very concerned about where their representation might go,” she said. “Well, today's the day it happened. And I can't respect the process that this went through. In my view, it is completely unfair and totally unnecessary.”