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State budget provision drastically changes structure, voting format of WROTB board of directors

By Mike Pettinella

Tuesday’s passage of the New York State budget includes a provision that means it’s no longer business as usual for the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.’s governing body.

Effective immediately, the new legislation – spearheaded by Democratic State Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo – dismisses all 17 directors on the board and revamps the voting format to give more influence to municipalities with the most population.

It used to be that each of the 15 counties, along with the cities of Buffalo and Rochester, would have one vote; the bill’s new language calls for a weighted system ranging from 24 votes (Erie County) down to one vote (Wyoming, Orleans, Seneca and Schuyler counties).

Genesee, which has been represented by Richard Siebert for more than 29 years, now will get two votes.

While Kennedy reportedly is calling the measure “a big victory for the people of New York,” the WROTB board chair and local Republican are speaking out against it.

“We’re disappointed by the language included in the state budget,” said Board Chair Richard Bianchi in a statement issued last night. “It was negotiated in secret with no open discussion, debate, or input from our member counties. In the short term, we will remain focused on fulfilling the responsibilities to our partners in local government as we look to evaluate potential next steps.” 

In his statement, Bianchi pointed to the record revenues achieved by the Batavia-based public benefit company that owns/operates Batavia Downs Gaming, harness horse racing track and The Hotel at Batavia Downs.

“Many in the hospitality industry never recovered from the COVID era. We not only grew but set new records for revenue, leading to the largest distribution of profits ever to member counties and cities,” he said. “That leadership came from the Board of Directors. We are proud we of the direction and leadership we provided during those historically difficult times.” 

Bianchi pointed out that, in 2022, revenue from net wins increased by 14.5 percent – to $76 million.

“As a result, revenues distributed to member municipalities were at an all-time high. Additionally, Batavia Downs Gaming contributed $37.25 million to State Education via the New York State Lottery. This number was also a record, surpassing 2021’s number by $4.7 million,” he concluded.

The impetus to restructure the WROTB board came from a New York State Comptroller’s audit that found fault with the corporation’s use of tickets to sporting events (notably, Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres) and concerts, and for President/CEO Henry Wojtaszek’s use of a company vehicle.

Wojtaszek, contacted this morning, said he did not wish to comment on the just-passed legislation.

The Batavian this morning reached out to Genesee County Legislature Chair Rochelle Stein and Republican Assemblyman Steven Hawley for comment. The legislature is responsible for making the director appointed to the WROTB board.

Hawley, along with Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney and Republican Sen. George Borrello, criticized Kennedy’s proposal last week. They all maintain that the change is politically motivated and "a power grab trying to diminish the influence of smaller, less populated counties."

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