Two weeks after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced significant changes to the structure of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. board of directors and to the way voting is conducted by the board, The Batavian sat down with Henry Wojtaszek, WROTB president and chief executive officer, on Tuesday afternoon at his office at Batavia Downs Gaming.
On the evening of May 2, as part of the state budget negotiations, Hochul, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced approval of a bill calling for the immediate dismantling of the current WROTB board and a move to weighted voting based on population.
It was no longer business as usual for the public benefit corporation as the previous system of one vote for one municipality was struck down. Control of the board now has shifted to the Democrat Party-heavy population centers – Erie and Monroe counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.
WROTB distributes a portion of earnings and surcharges to its 17 member municipalities – 15 counties, including Genesee, and the two major cities. Most of the rural counties lean Republican.
Following is the interview with Wojtaszek, who has been with the corporation for 13 years, the last six as the president/CEO:
Q. With all of the recent changes coming from Albany, what do you see going forward?
A. I would hope that as we see the board members being appointed from the various municipalities that we continue to receive very good board members … and that I would hope that common sense would prevail. The results here have been fantastic – and that’s what ultimately matters relative to a company.
We have excellent workers here who perform at an extremely high level, the guests consistently rate their experience here as excellent; they really enjoy coming here, and they enjoy the experience that they have here. I would hope that the people who have worked here over the last many, many years – those who make up a great team – are allowed to continue to do their jobs and provide that kind of customer service.
I feel pretty confident and everyone's ability here. I have not seen any drop-off in terms of attendance … in the last couple of weeks or months. In fact, it’s only gotten busier. We’re definitely at a higher pace, and we’re going to beat last year’s record pace. It’s going to be $83 million this year (in net win). That’s money that’s split between the local municipalities and the state. We have 370 people with good jobs here, and we return a huge amount of money back to the municipalities.
Q. Do you think the jobs of rank-and-file employees will be affected? Will it come down to that?
A. There’s a union here that provides a measure of protection for a lot of the workers that work here. Again, I think that performance really should matter a lot. And whatever direction this company goes, they're going to reward those people who have performed at a high level here. So, I’m optimistic that we're going to be able to continue to provide that great service and great, great entertainment value with most of the personnel still on site here.
Q. Have you had any contact from Buffalo Senator Tim Kennedy (who sponsored the bill to restructure the board) or his office, from anybody in Erie or Monroe County, Buffalo, or from Albany regarding what the future may hold?
Q. So, you have no idea right now who will be coming in as directors? (Note: Longtime Genesee County director Richard Siebert resigned his position upon hearing of these changes, and the local Republican Party is in the process of appointing a replacement).
A. That’s correct.
Q. Do you think that the management team will continue?
A. We’ll know when the board takes their seats, which I expect will happen in June. I think it’d be difficult to have a meeting in May (the board was scheduled to meet on May 24-25), knowing that they have to be appointed and some people have to be licensed.
Q. Many Republican politicians have come out and called the move to change the voting method a “power grab.” Would you agree to their assessment?
A. I do. I think for political purposes, I would term it as a political power grab. I can certainly say that it isn’t due to the performance of the corporation or the corporation performing up to par because it continues to break records in terms of the revenue it’s generating and the amount of distribution monies that it's generating to return to the communities. That's what we are charged to do -- prevent illegal bookmaking, create jobs and to return resources back to the member municipalities, and we've done all three of them at a very high level.
Q. Do you think that the things the New York State Comptroller’s Office brought up – mishandling of sporting event tickets, health insurance for board members, legal issues, etc. – prompted people to believe that more should have been distributed to municipalities?
A. We addressed them four years ago. These issues came up four years ago, and we've obviously put in place better safeguards to make sure that we perform at a high level here. We asked for the help from the Comptroller; we asked for his advice. He gave us advice; we took his advice. It was over four years ago.
We continue to be the most regulated industry in New York State, besides maybe the nuclear energy industry. And that's okay. We’re good with that. We have to apply to the (NYS) Gaming Commission for most of the programs that we run here, including the ticket program. Every year, we get renewed by them. We have a very good relationship with the Gaming Commission. We abide by their rules, and we follow their recommendations. And we will continue to do that.
We just had an audit done by our outside auditing firm, The Bonadio Group. Everything came back completely in order; there are no irregularities. We feel very good about that. The board has always felt very good about that. We know that there are no issues within the corporation. And we feel very confident that a new board coming on is going to find the same thing. We hope that they take the time to look at what's going on here and not take some of the reports that are out there in the media as gospel, and they take the time to review what's actually going on here before they make any decisions.
Q. What do you think of WNY politicians questioning the cost of WROTB’s purchase of The Hotel at Batavia Downs.
A. Actually, the hotel has been an excellent purchase for us. It’s really worked out well. It has allowed us to become a destination -- to provide a complete experience for people who want to come here and enjoy the gaming floor, enjoy the horse racing, enjoy the concerts, have a great meal, and stay on site. We think we got it for a reasonable price. We think we'll be able to utilize it now as a marketing tool to bring people here.
Q. The board has been considering adding more rooms to the hotel. With these recent changes, is any talk of expansion now on hold?
A. What we’ve done was take a look at expansion to see whether or not it was something that was worthwhile. We never made a decision to expend any money. We were just looking at it to try to get some preliminary numbers.
Q. Didn’t the board vote to fund a feasibility study?
A. The request was (to spend) between $50,000 and $100,000 to do a market study and do a feasibility study, but it wasn’t authorized. I guess the next board would take a look at it.
Q. In light of what has happened and some of these issues, do you have any regrets?
A. I have a lot of fond memories here. We have some great workers here. I love interacting with the public that comes here, and I like to see that they enjoy themselves. Do I wish we would have handled things a little differently? There are a couple of things I wish we'd handled differently. I wish we would have been a little more open as to who utilized the tickets. I think at one point, we refused to turn that over for FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. And I know, looking back, we should have done that a little early. We probably should have revamped our ticket policies a little bit earlier. Again, all those things were done over four years ago.
Q. Have some of your guests approached you and commented to you about the recent developments?
Well, we have a lot of people that are very supportive of us here. A lot of our, our patrons, our guests that come here, are very supportive of our team that we've put together here. So yeah, I've heard a lot of support. We have had letters and a lot of comments and support in the last couple of weeks.
Q. Genesee County now will get two out of a total of 100 votes under the weighted system, while Erie and Monroe counties, Buffalo and Rochester will combine for 62 votes. And they’re predominately Democrat. Your thoughts?
A. I think things will be different. But again, I hope that common sense and good business sense prevail. And they allow the people here to do their jobs and to continue to do them.
Q. Do you think this was done to get you out? Do you feel that you’re in limbo at this point?
A. Like I said, no one has talked to me. We just do our job every day. We continue to increase the revenue here. We continue to provide a great product for those people who are coming here and try to have a great experience and, and then the end of the day, we'll return the monies back to the municipalities like we're tasked with.
Q. Have you thought about what you would do if the new board decided to replace you? I know you’re an attorney. Has the thought about practicing law gone through your mind?
A. We’ll cross that bridge when the time comes. I love this job. I enjoy the people that I work with to a great extent, and I'm very proud of what they've done -- what we've all done here at Batavia Downs to build such a great business.
Q. One last thing. They’ve used the word corruption to describe the actions of the board and management relating to the issues that we’ve talked about. (“This is a big victory for the people of Western New York. We are rooting out corruption, and we are removing a board that demonstrated a blatant disregard for the public good,” Kennedy said.) That’s a very strong word that speaks about people’s character and reputation. How do you react to that?
A. We know that anybody who's been here asking questions or asking for documents, we've provided complete transparency relative to what goes on here, and we will continue to do that. We’re a public benefit corporation. We understand that we do have to provide that kind of information when people are looking for it, and we'll do it. And we will continue to provide an inside look at what goes on here.”