Skip to main content

Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.

iGaming, EZ Bet expansion into Erie County on list of WROTB's lobbying efforts: Wojtaszek

By Mike Pettinella

The president and chief executive officer of Western Region Off-Track Betting Corp. said he is “paying close attention” to potential legislation that would permit online wagering in New York State.

Speaking by telephone this morning, Henry Wojtaszek also said leadership of the public benefit company is making its collective voice heard to loosen the restrictions on placement of EZ Bet locations in Erie County – a topic that was reported by The Batavian last September.

Concerning online wagering, known as iGaming, Wojtaszek said that he and Board Chair Dennis Bassett traveled to Albany for a “lobby day” a couple weeks ago to speak with lawmakers and their staff.

“We’re paying close attention to the legislation, and we will make sure that we attempt to be included in the bill as being eligible for iGaming,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether or not there's enough support to pass it this year. We made our position known to them that we were unified with other OTBs that we wish to be included in that legislation.”

Asked whether WROTB was in favor of iGaming, which opponents contend would hurt brick-and-mortar facilities such as Batavia Downs Gaming, Wojtaszek was noncommittal.

“At this point, we're open to seeing what the numbers are, what the study shows,” he responded. “I don't think we have enough data yet to determine how it'll affect our industry. I guess the bottom line is if it’s going to come to New York, we want to be part of the process.”

Last month, state Sen. Joseph Addabbo, who represents Queens, reintroduced legislation to permit remote bets such as blackjack, poker and craps. Addabbo said iGaming, along with iLottery, could generate around $1 billion per year.

His action prompted casino workers in Queens to send a draft a letter stating that Addabbo is trying to undermine their ability to make a living. Addabbo is the chair of the Senate committee on racing, gaming and wagering.

According to reporting by the New York Post earlier this week, the letter was sent by the Hotel & Gaming Trades Council union on behalf of employees at Resorts World casino at Aqueduct.

WROTB Seeks More EZ Bets in Erie County

Several months ago, Wojtaszek said WROTB “could easily get between five and 15” more EZ Bet locations in Erie County if a state law giving Hamburg Gaming (Buffalo Raceway) veto power over EZ Bet placement was changed or eliminated.

Today, he said the corporation has a new board member, Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, who says she would like to see more Erie County businesses have the opportunity to set aside a portion of their venues for those wishing to place remote bets.

The law on the books currently states that Hamburg Gaming can prevent any EZ Bet locations within a 30-mile radius of its facility. WROTB has 28 EZ Bet locations, but only one in Erie County, that being The Cove on Transit Road in Depew.

EZ Bet (standalone terminals without employees) is a money-maker for the corporation as it generated $428,000 in profit last year and is projected to increase the bottom line by $492,000 in 2024. EZ Bet wagering also makes money for the businesses, which split the proceeds with WROTB.

Wojtaszek said Rodriguez-Dabney approached him and wanted to know why the corporation wasn’t able to locate more EZ Bets in Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

“When I explained to her the statute, she said then we need to look at having this revised to accommodate some of the businesses that want to have them,” he said. “And I agree with her.”

Wojtaszek also said WROTB had been open to a revenue-sharing agreement with Hamburg Gaming, adding that several businesses have approached him about become EZ Bet sites only to get turned down by Hamburg Gaming.

He said lobbyists will continue to push for a change to this law until the end of the current legislative session, which ends in June.

“We’ll keep up our lobbying efforts because it affects other OTBs across the state as well,” he said. “Again, we went there with a unified voice two weeks ago to bring that up as part of what we’re looking for.”

WROTB to honor Batavian Richard Siebert with plaque in new-look Genesee banquet room

By Mike Pettinella
Richard Siebert

Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. officials today said they will be honoring former director Batavian Richard Siebert for his many years of service to Batavia Downs and Batavia Downs Gaming.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek, at today’s board meeting at the Park Road facility, said that Siebert will be recognized at a noon reception on March 28 with a plaque in the newly remodeled Genesee banquet room on the second floor of Batavia Downs Gaming.

Siebert (photo at right) served on the board for 29 years until resigning in early May after it was announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul that the governing body would be dismantled and restructured.

Wojtaszek said that he’s contacted Siebert about the recognition.

“Dick said he’s going to try to bring his family,” he said. “He was very touched, and he definitely wants to be here.”

Wojtaszek also raved over changes that are being made to what had been known as the Grandstands banquet room.

“Our staff did a great job,” he said. “We’re expanding our catering services … and the room looks fantastic. It’s not done yet, but we’re pretty close to it.”

In other developments from the meeting:

-- Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach reported five-year earnings and surcharge distribution figures totaling $28,387,714.

“With Western OTB, if we have losses in a year, we cannot offset future earnings with those losses. So, for really a four-year period (not including 2020 when there were no earnings), we've distributed $28.4 million, which I feel for a small venue is extremely impressive,” she said.

WROTB distributed $5.8 million in surcharge and earnings to its 17 member municipalities in 2021, a year after having only 722,740 in surcharge distributions, due to the pandemic.

The number jumped to $8.4 million in 2022 and $9.7 million last year, including fourth-quarter earnings distributions of just shy of $1.9 million.

Genesee County received $208,114 in surcharge and earnings distributions in 2023, up from $179,105 in 2022.

Looking forward, she said the corporation is aiming for a net win (money left in the video lottery terminals after payouts) in 2024 of $89 million.

“If that’s the case, it could very well (exceed $9.7 million),” she said.

Leach pointed out that “back in the day, when our pari-mutuel (horse race wagering) was, like 1990 when it was $200 million, our surcharge distributions were close to $4 million.”

“That’s not the case anymore, but our earnings distribution – $9.1 million for 2023 – was the highest in the corporation’s history,” she noted.

-- Board Chair Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester) said that the company’s internal investigation into a lawsuit by three former bartenders at Batavia Downs Gaming is ongoing.

“We talked about it in executive session and our investigation continues, but I have nothing new to report,” he said, adding that he hasn’t heard anything more from attorneys representing Tara Sweet of Elba, Corrine Armison of Batavia and Brooklynn Cline of Belmont.

The trio is suing the corporation, claiming wage theft by supervisors who kept a share of pooled tips. Also, Sweet is alleging sexual harassment against Chief Operating Officer Scott Kiedrowski and Director of Security Daniel Wood.

Kiedrowski and Wood are named as defendants, along with WROTB and Batavia Downs Gaming, in the suit that was filed in Supreme Court in Genesee County. Both Kiedrowski and Wood are working while the lawsuit unfolds.

-- The board voted to amend a pair of resolutions authorizing the purchase of concert tickets and parking passes for all shows at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center in 2024 and for Buffalo Bills’ licensing fees, tickets and a suite through 2026.

The Darien Lake cost went up from $30,000 to $35,000 while the cost for the Bills’ games has been set at $157,202.90 in 2024, $163,413.05 in 2025 and $165,733.70 in 2026.

When asked about the value received for these expenses, Bassett firmly defended the need to continue this practice.

“I will stand up in front of anybody. We’re an organization that is competing against the municipalities around us, competing against other people for their time and we have to treat our special customers special,” he said.

“We have a benefit of having a winning football team in our presence. And I've been on the board 14 years, and it hasn't been a winning football team all the time. As a matter of fact, when I first came on the board, we couldn't give the Buffalo Bills tickets away.”

Bassett acknowledged that WROTB has gotten “slammed for entertainment,” but added that directors have put processes in place to identify who is attending.

“We provide host, and the host entertains our customers. And as far as I know, it's a good investment for us to entertain our what I consider our special customers. And were going to continue that.”

File photo by Joanne Beck.

Change of residency prompts dismissal of Nolan's false claims' suit against WROTB in federal court

By Mike Pettinella

An attorney representing Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. Wednesday called it “a wise decision” by lawyers representing a former chief operating officer at WROTB to seek dismissal of a false claims' lawsuit against current and former directors and senior management.

“That was a wise decision for them to withdraw the lawsuit … because it would have been without merit, and what have faced immediate dismissal motion,” said Aaron Saykin of Hodgson Russ LLP of Buffalo, speaking of a legal action filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York by Michael Nolan.

In July 2021, Nolan filed a false claims act lawsuit against the corporation, naming current and former board members (including Richard Siebert, Genesee County) and senior leaders – claiming WROTB improperly spent public funds on directors’ health insurance, sporting and concert tickets and other management perks.

On Jan. 4 of this year, Western District Court Judge William M. Skretny ruled that a dismissal was in order due to the fact that the court lacks diversity jurisdiction over the claims since Nolan is no longer a resident of Florida. Reportedly, Nolan has moved back to New York.

An affidavit from Nolan’s attorney, Edward Yankelunas of Tiveron Law of Amherst, dated Jan. 3, indicated that “although (Nolan) is not proceeding with the state qui tam action in federal court for the reason stated above (change of residence) and seeks to voluntarily dismiss this action, the plaintiff respectfully reserves the right to (a) proceed with state qui tam action New York State Supreme Court and (b) proceed with the plaintiff’s individual action against WROTB and the other named defendants, which is pending in this court.”

A call to Yankelunas was not returned at the time of the posting of this story.

Saykin said that former State Sen. George Maziarz filed a similar lawsuit in 2022 in Erie County Supreme Court.

“Maziarz’s suit had extremely similar allegations and we moved to dismiss that,” he said. “Before the judge even decided it, the other side withdrew it quickly because we pointed out that it was completely meritless under the False Claims Act.”

Saykin said cases involving the False Claims Act normally are “sued on behalf of the government, and that the Office of the State Attorney General declined to intervene and take the (Nolan) case.”

The court issued a summons to nearly two dozen defendants in May 2023, but those people were not served summonses because, according to Yankelunas’ filing, Nolan’s citizenship changed from Florida to New York, “thereby apparently eliminating diversity jurisdiction.”

Saykin said he views it differently.

“They waited on it for months and months and months and didn’t do anything. I think that tells you everything you need to know about how strongly they felt about it,” he surmised, adding that if Nolan refiles in state court, WROTB will move to dismiss it.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek said the lawsuit was “frivolous and we’re glad it was dismissed.”

Nolan previously filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against his former employer following his firing in December 2020. He is claiming he was let go for sharing information about the company’s policies with federal and state authorities.

He is seeking $14.5 million in compensatory damages plus reinstatement to his former COO position, reinstatement of full fringe benefits and seniority rights, damages sustained due to the violation including, without limitation, the compensation for lost wages, benefits and other remuneration, and payment of all reasonable costs, disbursements, and attorney's fees.

WROTB board prepared to hire outside law firm to investigate sexual harassment, wage theft allegations

By Mike Pettinella
Dennis Bassett

The chair of Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. board of directors this afternoon said it’s likely that an outside law firm will be hired to look into sexual harassment and wage theft allegations by three former Batavia Downs Gaming employees.

“The allegations in the lawsuit made by the OTB employees are certainly concerning to us as a board and warrant an investigation,” Dennis Bassett, (photo at right), who represents the City of Rochester, told The Batavian. “Presently, we are discussing whether we should seek an outside law firm to conduct further investigation to ensure the integrity of their findings.”

Bassett said he spoke to all the other directors by telephone on Thursday and is fairly certain that attorneys from an independent firm not connected to the public benefit company will be retained.

“Our intention is not to delay moving forward on this,” he added.

Former WROTB bartenders Tara Sweet of Elba, Corrine Armison of Batavia and Brooklynn Cline of Belmont are suing the corporation, claiming wage theft by supervisors who kept a share of pooled tips.

Furthermore, Sweet is alleging sexual harassment against Chief Operating Officer Scott Kiedrowski and Director of Security Daniel Wood.

Kiedrowski and Wood are named as defendants, along with WROTB and Batavia Downs Gaming, in the suit that was filed in Supreme Court in Genesee County on Wednesday.

Bassett said that both Kiedrowski and Wood are on the job pending the outcome of the investigation and lawsuit.

“They are innocent until we find out the facts,” he said. “We’re going to look at all the facts, as well as our institutional policies and how we responded (to the allegations).”

He said some of the allegations in the lawsuit were not presented to WROTB administration, necessitating the need for an independent investigation.

“By hiring an outside firm, we would send a signal that we want to get to the bottom of this and act accordingly,” he said. “I don’t believe administration had all the pieces to do a thorough investigation but did as much as they could with the facts presented.”

When it was mentioned that WROTB continues to find itself embroiled in legal troubles, giving the corporation a “black eye,” Bassett sighed before responding.

“Regardless of how successful we are – and we certainly have been over the past couple of years, we cannot and will not in any way overlook the concerns of our employees,” he said. “We will look into this and take it very seriously. At the end of the day, our success depends on how our employees are treated.”

On Thursday, The Batavian reported in detail on the lawsuit, which was reported by the United Public Service Employees Union on Oct. 30. Batavia Downs Gaming fired Sweet on Nov. 16, while Armison and Cline quit their jobs in the spring.

A letter dated Dec. 8 from the attorney representing Sweet, Armison, and Cline indicated that the trio was seeking $250,000 “to right these wrongs:” and that Sweet be reinstated and her disciplinary record be swept clean. If those conditions weren’t met by Dec. 22, according to the letter, the demand for compensation increases to $500,000, along with the threat of a lawsuit.

WROTB officials contend that Sweet was let go for stealing from a customer, something that is disputed in the lawsuit.

Previously: Former Batavia Downs employees file lawsuit alleging wage theft and sexual harassment; OTB documents point to inconsistencies

Former Batavia Downs employees file lawsuit alleging wage theft and sexual harassment; OTB documents point to inconsistencies

By Howard B. Owens
Batavia Downs 2022

Three former employees of Batavia Downs have filed a lawsuit against Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. and two supervisors, alleging sexual harassment and wage theft.

The suit was filed in Genesee County on Wednesday. It names as plaintiffs, Tara Sweet of Elba, Corrine Armison of Batavia, and Brooklynn Cline of Belmont.  

All three are claiming wage theft by supervisors keeping a share of pooled tips, and Sweet is making allegations of sexual harassment.

The defendants, besides Batavia Downs and WROTB, are Scott Kiedrowski, chief operating officer, and Daniel Wood, director of security.

WROTB has not yet had an opportunity to file with the court a response, but The Batavian obtained two letters previously written to a union representative and the attorney for the plaintiffs that provide assertions that seem to refute the allegations in the suit, along with a letter from the attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Sweet was terminated by Batavia Downs on Nov. 16. Armison and Cline both quit their jobs in the spring.

The lawsuit alleges that Sweet was fired because she filed a grievance over a policy that allowed supervisors to get a share of tips from customers. Supervisors getting a share of tips in a tip pool is both unlawful and a violation of the collective bargaining agreement between WROTB and the United Public Service Employees Union. 

She also alleges that Kiedrowski made unwanted sexual advances, sent texts that made her feel uncomfortable, made inappropriate requests and that Wood made inappropriate comments and inappropriately touched her.

According to a letter written to Antonella Rotilio, a labor relations representative for UPSEU in Albany, by Danielle N. Fleming, WROTB director of human resources, Batavia Downs became aware of the alleged sexual harassment through communications from the union.

The letter expresses frustration with the union for not providing more information to assist in the investigation and notes that the complaint to the union, rather than human resources, was contrary to the terms of the employee handbook and company policy. 

The complaints were reported by the union on Oct. 30th.

The letter states that on 10 prior dates, all of which are listed, Fleming requested that the union provide evidence and specific details, including screenshots of text messages, and the union never complied with these requests. 

"Your response to each of these requests has vacillated between promising to share all relevant information and then refusing to provide the information we need in order to conduct a thorough investigation of any and all allegations," it stated. 

The letter reminds Rotilio that her organization has a contractual obligation to cooperate in the investigation.

"The union is required to follow the collective bargaining agreement to mitigate any sexual harassment situations, just as the company is held to the same requirement," the letter states. "By withholding documentation that is necessary in order to investigate allegations of harassment in the workplace, the union is making it impossible for the company to investigate any potential wrongdoing and to provide appropriate measures to remediate the same."

On Dec. 18, an attorney for Batavia Downs sent a letter to Clare T. Sellers, with Hayes Dolce in Buffalo, the attorney representing Sweet, Armison, and Cline, in response to Dec. 8 letter demanding payment from Batavia Downs for $250,000 "to right these wrongs."  The letter from Sellers also demands that Sweet be reinstated and her disciplinary record be swept clean. If the demand isn't met by Dec. 22, the letter states, the demand for compensation increases to $500,000 and threatens a lawsuit if no settlement is reached.

Ginger D. Schroeder, with Schroder, Joseph & Associations, of Buffalo, informed Sellers that WROTB fully investigated claims of wage theft and retaliation against Sweet. The letter states the charges of sexual harassment could not be investigated because Sellers provided only generalized assertions and offered no evidence to support the allegation. 

Regarding the alleged theft of pooled tips, Schroeder states that the issue was resolved through the grievance process and that supervisors are no longer assisting employees with customer service.

"What your clients have overlooked in making these allegations is that they received the same amounts from the tip pool as they would have received if they had not been assisted by their supervisors in performing services for the patrons," the letter states. "This is because -- if the supervisors had not assisted them -- other employees in the bargaining unit would have assisted them, and the amounts received by your clients would have remained the same. Accordingly, when the supervisors were assigned to perform these tasks, they were not acting as supervisors but were doing the same work as your employees, and each such supervisor simply stepped in to perform the work that otherwise would have been performed by another employee." 

Because of these circumstances, the letter states that the employees did not suffer any economic loss as a result of the shared tips with supervisors. 

There is also an allegation that employees were not paid for work performed while on break.  The letter states that employees who choose to take a meal break but remain at the bar did not perform any work while at the bar during meal breaks.

As for alleged retaliation, the letter states Sweet and another employee (who is not a plaintiff in the suit but is named a person represented by Sellers in her Dec. 8 letter) were first disciplined for alleged policy violations well before Sweet filed a grievance. Sweet and the other employee were accused of over-serving a patron in 34 Rush on Aug. 5, which then resulted in a security incident involving that apparently intoxicated patron and two other patrons. Following an investigation, Sweet and the other bartender received a two-day suspension on Aug. 30.

The tip-pooling allegation was first brought to the attention of Batavia Downs two weeks later, according to the letter.

The lawsuit states that Sweet was suspended for "three days" on Aug. 30 "without just cause."

Sweet was previously warned, according to the letter, in October 2021, for allegedly over-serving a customer in September 2021. 

Another apparent incident is redacted from the letter and notes that Sweet was terminated on Nov. 16 "after providing both Ms. Sweet and her union representative an opportunity to respond to the evidence," and that she was dismissed from her job for cause.

The allegation in the suit is that Sweet was terminated without explanation and purely in retaliation for filing a grievance. 

While the letter from Schroeder states that up to that point, WROTB had received no evidence or specifics to support the claims of sexual harassment, nor even knew, prior to the Dec. 8 letter, the name(s) of accusers, the lawsuit filed on Wednesday specifies multiple incidents of alleged harassment.  

It accuses Wood of telling Sweet that she is beautiful, a hard worker and that they should run away together and get married, that "her fiance did not deserve her."  It accuses Wood of hugging her and rubbing her back without her consent. It also states that Wood invited her to his office for a back massage and that he texted her to offer her a 15-minute nap on his couch. 

The suit accuses Kiedrowski of taking Sweet and two other employees to Sabres and Bills games, to a private suite and then starting to refer to her as "Special T." That he sent her late-night texts that made her feel uncomfortable (the contents of the texts are not revealed in the suit).

In February 2022, the suit alleges Kiedrowski asked Sweet to bring him lunch in his office and that he would "give her a big tip." 

As a result, "Plaintiff Sweet was scared and creeped out by this request." 

The suit accuses Kiedrowski, along with additional complaints, of not doing anything about sexual harassment from patrons while acknowledging it occurred. 

The suit alleges that Sweet brought her complaint of alleged sexual harassment in August (without specifying a day), which is within the same time frame she is accused of over-serving a patron.  The suit does not explain how officials at WROTB would have known the complaints came from Sweet since she went to the union, which the suit acknowledges, and the union withheld the names of the employees making the allegations, according to the previously mentioned letter from human resources to the union.

The suit also claims that the other bartender was not disciplined, but Schroeder's letter states she was.

The suit states that on Nov. 16, just prior to her termination, Sweet, along with another employee, was "falsely accused" of stealing $8. This may be the incident redacted in the Schroeder letter. 

Among the relief sought in the suit, the plaintiffs are asking for payment of unpaid tips, damages, civil fines and penalties, and attorneys fees.

WROTB earnings in 2023 at an all-time high: CFO

By Mike Pettinella

Preliminary figures from last month’s activity throughout Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. are indicating that the public benefit company will rack up another record year in 2023.

“Our preliminary numbers for December as well as the last quarter of the year were such that it looks like we’ll have achieved record earnings for ’23,” said WROTB Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach during Thursday’s board of directors meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming. “It’s trending toward $9.3 million to $9.4 million.”

Leach said that earnings in October and November rose to $1,078,193 – up more than $500,000 than the anticipated in the corporation’s operating plan.

In light of that, $44,091 was distributed to WROTB’s 17 member municipalities in surcharge for the month of November.

As reported on Thursday, Dennis Morgan, director representing the City of Rochester, was elected by the board to serve as chair.

The vice chair position will be held by Edward Morgan (Orleans County), who served in the same capacity for many years before the board’s dismantling by New York State last spring.

In other developments, the board approved:

  • A contract with former Buffalo Sabre Danny Gare for “goodwill appearances” on behalf of WROTB in 2024. The pact calls for Gare to receive $29,000, with details to be spelled out in the near future.
  • A one-year contract with Great Lakes Environmental & Safety Consultants, Inc., for $20,400 for “continual workplace safety compliance assistance.”
  • A proposal from L&M Specialty Fabrication of Batavia for $90,853.58 for a complete custom gate with electric and truck modifications for the harness horse track at Batavia Downs.
  • A contract with Jim Fink for one year at $1,500 per month to support WROTB’s social media marketing and provide organizational updates to staff.

WROTB's new director from Erie County fires off slew of questions; board grants raises to senior officers

By Mike Pettinella
Bassett and Wojtaszek
Dennis Bassett, left, was elected as chairman of the board of directors of Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. at Thursday morning's meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming. At right is President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek. Photo by Mike Pettinella.

Timothy Callan, the newest appointee to the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. board, isn’t able to vote yet – he’s waiting for his license from the New York Gaming Commission – but that didn’t prevent him from questioning the other directors and WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek on several matters Thursday morning.

Callan, the Erie County Deputy County comptroller, is representing Erie County on the board after his appointment by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Callan’s boss, County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick, has been an outspoken critic of the public benefit company’s policies and practices.

He is replacing Jennifer Hibit, secretary of the Erie County Democratic Committee, who resigned due to a state law prohibiting “party officers” from serving on the WROTB board.

As Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester), who was elected unanimously today as the board chair for the remainder of his four-year term, led the meeting, Callan made his presence known, seeking answers about the corporation’s hiring practices, salary adjustments, branches, lobbying firms and insurance.

HIRING OF ASSISTANT GM FOOD/BEVERAGE
When Personnel Committee Chair Elliott Winter (Niagara County) introduced the establishment of a new position, assistant general manager for Food & Beverage, Callan sought information about WROTB’s hiring practices.

Wojtaszek said the new job is not a union position, adding that employees coming in at “Grade 6 or below are hired by me, after posting and after an interview usually with the department head, and the higher level positions are hired by the board.”

Callan said that the proposition of a new assistant general manager “prompted me to ask these general questions about who hires, interviews, makes decisions on personnel.”

Responding, Wojtaszek said that, in this case, he would be the one doing the hiring.

Callan then asked for a document showing the different positions in the corporation, with Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach pointing him to the operating plan for 2024. After that, Callan requested a copy of the WROTB organizational chart.

RAISES FOR EXECUTIVE OFFICERS
Next on Winter’s report were monthly salary adjustments for the corporation’s senior management team -- $1,250 for Wojtaszek, $1,041.67 for Leach, $625 each for VP/Administration William White and Chief Operating Officer Scott Kiedrowski and $416.67 for VP/Operations Sean Schiano.

Winter based the raises -- ranging from $15,000 per year for Wojtaszek to $5,000 per year for Schiano -- on “the success of the corporation in 2023.”

Callan asked what the salaries would be after the adjustments, with Wojtaszek answering, “we can get you those numbers.”

The Batavian received those numbers from Leach in an email this afternoon.

The increases, which were approved unanimously by the board, bump the salaries up as follows:

  • Wojtaszek, $299,128
  • Leach, $244,045
  • Kiedrowski, $180,098
  • White, $174,898
  • Schiano, $142,072.

“These are considerable salary adjustments,” Callan noted. 

Bassett responded, “They really aren’t,” and asked Director Jimmy Wilmot (Monroe County), who has experience in the gaming industry, to “talk big picture” about the competitive environment facing casinos such as Batavia Downs Gaming.

“I won’t get into the weeds about private businesses that I’ve participated in … but this industry in general is very nomadic; to keep people, you have to pay them,” Wilmot said. 

Callan said he understood that, adding that “this is a governmental entity.”

“This is a government entity that is competing in a very competitive commercial environment,” Bassett offered. “And if we're going to -- as we talked in our committee meeting yesterday -- if we're going to keep leading-edge people that manage this business the way we would like them to manage it and lead the way we have led …”

He then cited 2023 statistics that indicate Batavia Downs Gaming increased by 11 percent in net win (the amount in the video lottery terminals after payouts), by 8.4 percent in attendance, by 14 percent in beverage and food sales and by 15 percent in hotel sales and suites.

“And we increased our distribution to municipalities which is key to me and most important to me; that was up over 9 percent,” he added. “This board felt that with those gains – and it doesn’t happen every year – and with the success this leadership had in 2023 … it was important to reward the leadership team.”

Callan then asked if each one of those officers had contracts (they do) and if the contracts provide for adjustments such as these and annual cost-of-living adjustments.

The answer he received was that there are no cost-of-living provisions in the contract and that the officers’ base compensation can be reviewed only by the board of directors.

“When was the last time that these five individuals had compensation adjustments?” Callan asked.

The board authorized contracts for each of these officers in May 2023, just prior to the reorganization of the board by the state government, and each of the five received substantial raises at that time as well.

LOOKING AT THE FUTURE OF OTB BRANCHES
Callan’s next topic was the status of WROTB’s eight branch locations, or what used to be called OTB parlors. 

“It’s my impression or maybe more than an impression that the branch locations don't make a lot of money and, in many cases, are negative in the corporation’s financial statement,” he said. “The cost to operate the branches is more than the revenue coming in from the branches.”

Callan wanted to know if there is a plan in place pertaining to the branches, wondered out loud what happens to employees when branches are closed and asked whether there are plans to close more branches in 2024.

Bassett acknowledged that the branch operation side of the company is under scrutiny.

“We have been looking at the branches, and we have been closing branches that were not profitable,” he said. “And a number of employees in those branches have been retiring. And what I presented to the leadership team yesterday was a strategic plan.”

He said that part of the strategic plan is to “reinvent” the branches “because we do want WROTB out in the community and how we can work with those branches to better have them be a part of the overall look and feel of our organization.”

In previous meetings, Wojtaszek informed the board that management was taking a hard look at the branches, and he reiterated that at Thursday’s meeting.

“The answer is that we will be looking at the branches very shortly -- within the next couple of months,” he said. “We haven't made any decisions. We talked about previously meeting with the branches and the employees ahead of time, and that is what we intend to do before we make any decisions.”

Leach said that seven of the eight branches were not profitable in 2022 but did point out that revenue from branch activity does contribute to the surcharge distributed to the 17 member municipalities.

Further discussion of the branches, initiated by Callan, focused on whether the corporation owned or leased the buildings and how sales of those buildings are recorded.

QUESTIONING ROLES OF WROTB LOBBYISTS
Three resolutions before the board spelled out six-month extensions with three Albany-based lobbying firms – Bolton-St. Johns at $8,500 per month, Upstate Strategic Advisors at $3,500 per month, and Mercury Public Affairs at $8,000 per month.

On this subject, Callan asked whether the corporation was getting its money’s worth and whether there were metrics in place to gauge its effectiveness.

“Generally speaking, what are the lobbyists doing? Are they lobbying state legislators? Are they lobbying the governor’s office? Are they interacting with the Gaming Commission? Are they interacting with local governments?” he said.

“All of the above,” Wojtaszek said.

Continuing, “We discussed some topics and, as you said earlier, are not appropriate to discuss in a public forum. We have certain items that we're going to ask them to look at, and we certainly will share that with you in another setting.”

Bassett said the board desires to put metrics in place to be able to evaluate the success of the lobbyists.

“We want to … have a level of specificity around those individuals that we’re hiring and the results they provide to this board.”

All three resolutions passed without a “no” vote.

SEEKING COMPETITIVE BIDDING FOR INSURANCE
Directors passed a resolution to contract with Travelers Insurance Co. through Dec. 10, 2024, for property insurance for the Hotel at Batavia Downs. The premium is set at $59,261.

With that, Callan asked about the process of contracting with insurance companies.

Wojtaszek said management is reviewing proposals for Batavia Downs Gaming, with the intention of using a competitive bidding process. Garland Insurance of Phoenix, Ariz., has provided insurance for the facility since 2016.

Decisions, decisions. Future of its branches to be focus of WROTB deliberations; union seeks input

By Mike Pettinella
Henry

The top-ranking official of Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. says many factors will be taken into consideration in the coming weeks to determine the future of the public benefit company’s OTB branches.

Meanwhile, the representative of the employees’ union is reiterating her insistence that the workers at those eight locations are included in the process.

With only two of the branches projected to show a profit for 2024, management and the board of directors will be taking a deep dive into that segment of WROTB’s organization soon after the first of the year, President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek said on Friday.

“It’s definitely a concern, and it’s something that the board has asked us to address,” he said. “We will address it with our employees, we will look at it and we will make decisions that are in the best interests of the company as to what the mix might be between branches and EZ Bet locations.”

As she did after a WROTB board meeting in August, Antonella Rotilio, labor relations rep for United Public Service Employees Union Local 1222, contends that no decisions should be made without the input of the branch employees.

Antonella Rotilio

"Right now, we're in the dark,” she said, also on Friday. “There have been no conversations about saving the branches. We know that Henry’s goal is to close the branches. All we’re looking for is some transparency and to be part of the conversation before they take action and go to the board to approve what they’ve done.”

Rotilio (photo at left) said she believes that management nor the board respects the union.

“We have employees who have been with the corporation for 30 years and they should not be reading anything in print about possibly losing their jobs. It should be a discussion at the very least with the union,” she said.

When asked about respect for the employees, Wojtaszek replied that he has “great respect for our employees; they do a great job. We've tried to reward them for the great year that they've had (with a 4 ½ percent raise for 2024). We love the way they treat our customers. We love our employees.”

When asked about respect for the union, he said, “We love our employees.”

Over the years, WROTB, headquartered at Batavia Downs Gaming on Park Road, has whittled down the number of branches to the current eight while increasing its EZ Bet location presence to 28. EZ Bets are employee-less sites at existing businesses where customers can wager on horse racing.

Rotilio said the branches employ about 40 people, many who have been on the job for quite some time, in Auburn, Jamestown, Rochester, Monroe County (two), Erie County (two), Niagara County and at Batavia Downs Gaming.

The corporation’s operating plan for next year lists only the Clinton branch in Erie County and the Lyell branch in Rochester as profitable. All told, the projected net loss for the branches is close to $300,000. The total handle for all the branches is projected to exceed $22 million.

Rotilio said the branches provide a vital service to the customers and host communities and believes that more effort should be put into promoting them.

“They (management) don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, this branch has been underperforming for this amount of time or this many years, we need to work on a plan. It’s just they show up one day and say, ‘We're closing the branch.’ So, it's coming out of nowhere,” she said.

In October, the board voted in favor of the sale of OTB branches in Phoenix, Oswego County, and West Ridge Road, Monroe County.

Branch employees’ lives are in limbo, fearing that their jobs could be terminated at a moment’s notice, Rotilio added.

“I have said to board members that before you vote on a decision based on (financial) numbers that you’re seeing, you need to meet with us, talk to the members (union employees) because it affects the communities as well,” she said. “We hear from the customers, telling us that this has been part of their lives for a long time.”

Wojtaszek said the plan is to communicate with the employees and share their concerns with the board.

“In the end, the board will do what is best for the company,” he said, emphasizing that no one in the corporation has brought up eliminating all of the branches.

He noted that he would like to see legislation at the state level that would allow sports betting to take place at OTB branches.

“We've always talked about that. If sports betting was allowed in these OTB branches, that certainly will make a difference,” he said. “Part of the problem is they made it available so that some of these sports betting companies can take horse bets but not the reverse. FanDuel now has horse race betting on their website, but we can’t offer sports betting.”

Board OKs 4 1/2 percent raise for WROTB employees, feasibility study for expansion of Hotel at Batavia Downs

By Mike Pettinella

A raise for all Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. employees, a plan to expand The Hotel at Batavia Downs and an application to add more terminals to the gaming floor.

Those items and the passage of about 65 resolutions that had been in the hopper for up to three months gave WROTB directors plenty of activity at this morning’s board meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming on Park Road.

Directors voted in favor of a resolution granting all employees of the public benefit company a 4 ½ percent raise, effective Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2024.

“The organization is only as good as the people who support the organization,” said Temporary Chair Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester). “… It a step in the right direction for us as a board.”

The pay increase extends to all employees, union and non-union, including senior management, who were given a three-year contract last spring.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek said the (United Professional & Service Employees) Union signed a contract “that gives those workers the same raise as the entire corporation.”

“In the old days, they had a separate clause in there where they would have a raise depending upon what they negotiated that year,” he said. “But the latest contract that they signed, they get the same as every other employee at WROTB.”

The resolutions stated that Batavia Downs Gaming’s net win (money left in the gaming machines after payouts to customers) rose by $7.2 million from 2022 to 2023 and attendance increased by more than 58,000 during that same period. Additionally, food and beverage, and hotel room sales increased by 14 percent.

Update: Antonella Rotilio, UPSEU labor relations representative, said that the union is "very pleased that the board acknowledges the success of the corporation because of the members and the employees. Those are big steps."

HOTEL FEASIBILITY STUDY APPROVED

The board passed two resolutions pertaining to The Hotel at Batavia Downs – one to extend its contract with Hart Hotel Inc. to manage the 84-room facility for three more years at a cost not to exceed $9,000 per month and the other to authorize spending up to $100,000 for a feasibility study to determine if expansion is warranted.

Wojtaszek said that Dave Hart, owner of Hart Hotel Inc., will “take the lead on looking for an architect to do the drawing and for a company to study how an expansion would affect our business.”

He said the board will not make a decision until the feasibility study is complete and submitted for review. He said adding 40 rooms has been talked about but “nothing is definite at this point.”

MORE GAMES ON THE FLOOR?

Vice President/Operations Sean Schiano has applied to the New York State Gaming Commission for the right to add 18 more Video Lottery Terminals to the gaming floor.

Wojtaszek said the addition of 18 games would max out the floor, increasing the total number to 928.

“After that (approval) we probably will not have much more room to expand on the current floor, so we’d have to take a different approach,” he said. “But those 18 will fit on our current makeup.”

In other action, the board voted to approve the 2024 Operating Plan that was submitted by Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach and her staff. 

Previously: Member municipality distributions to approach $10 million in 2024: WROTB chief financial officer

WROTB's Erie County director resigns due to state law prohibiting 'party officials'; five 'public officials' can stay

By Mike Pettinella

The makeup of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. board of directors is changing once again.

As a result of a New York State law prohibiting political party officials from obtaining a license from the state Gaming Commission to serve on the WROTB board, Jennifer Hibit, who was appointed to represent Erie County in June, has resigned.

Hibit is the secretary of the Erie County Democratic Committee.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek today confirmed that Hibit is no longer on the 17-member board and has been replaced by Deputy County Comptroller Timothy Callan.

Callan was not at this morning’s directors’ meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming because he has yet to receive his license from the Gaming Commission.

Following the meeting, Wojtaszek told The Batavian that the law covers two areas – someone who is a party officer and someone who is a public officer that potentially could have a conflict of interest.

“The law defines a party officer as someone with a national, state or county political committee, and that applies to Hibit as well as Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney (City of Buffalo representative),” he said.

Wojtaszek noted that Rodriguez-Dabney, who is the vice chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee, has not indicated whether she will be resigning yet.

Continuing, he said the when looking at the public officer portion of the law, it defines someone that could be ineligible as an elected or appointed official “who has a conflict due to dealing with the pari-mutuel betting process or taxation thereof.”

When exploring that section of the law, there are five current WROTB directors that fall into that category:

-- Terrance Baxter, Moravia (Cayuga County) town supervisor;
-- Edward Morgan, Orleans County legislator;
-- Paul Bartow, Schuyler County planning commission and historical society board member;
-- Michael Horton, Savona (Steuben County) Village Court judge;
-- Susan Way, member of the Wyoming County Board of Supervisors.

Wojtaszek said those five were required to sign a form indicating there was no conflict of interest, action that was confirmed by Morgan during a break in today’s meeting.

“They can stay on the board as long as they certify that there is no conflict and that the prohibition does not apply to them,” Wojtaszek added.

With Hibit not there because of her resignation and Rodriguez-Dabney also absent, the board needed the presence of Monroe County director James A. Wilmot to be in attendance – and he was -- to have a quorum. Erie County has 24 votes and Buffalo has 10 out of the 100 votes in the weighted voting system; Monroe County has 20 votes.

Hibit’s replacement, Callan, works for County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick, who has publicly spoken out against WROTB’s policies and practices.

In a report from a Buffalo-based publication, Hibit said she had disclosed her role with the Democratic Committee when she applied for the position, and a Gaming Commission official stated that it was an oversight until recently.

In a related matter, the board is scheduled to vote on a new permanent chairperson at its January meeting. Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester) has been serving as the temporary chair.

Smash Mouth to kick off Batavia Downs' 2024 Concert Series; lineup includes actor Kevin Bacon's band

By Mike Pettinella
concert series

Calling it “the most fun and entertaining series we’ve ever had,” Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. President Henry Wojtaszek (photo above) this morning unveiled a nine-week, 14-performer Rockin’ the Downs 2024 Summer Concert Series.

The Friday night series begins on June 21 with Smash Mouth, the California-based rock band that made a big splash in the 1990s and early 2000s with hits such as “Walkin' on the Sun,” “All-Star,” “Then the Morning Comes,” and a cover of The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”

It concludes on Aug. 16 with a trio of acts featuring former members of the legendary Boston (Tommy DeCarlo), Chicago (Jason Scheff) and Dennis DeYoung of Styx (August Zadra).

In between, there will be six “tribute” bands showcasing the music of Heart, The Guess Who, The Doors, Jimmy Buffett, Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, along with April Wine, country star Clay Walker, The Bacon Brothers (featuring Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon) and 38 Special.

Batavia Downs' press release indicated that the Bacon Brothers -- Kevin and Michael, an Emmy Award-winning composer), have spent the better part of three decades creating their own mix of folk, rock, soul, and country music, a diverse sound they call "forosoco."  The Landsharks Band (tribute to Jimmy Buffett) will open the show.

“When I say the most fun and entertaining, it’s because of the ‘sing-along’ nature of the music,” Wojtaszek said following a brief press conference at Batavia Downs Gaming on Park Road. “The audience is going to know most of the songs and surely will have a great time.”

The concert series lineup is as follows:

-- June 21, Smash Mouth.
-- June 28, Barracuda (Heart tribute).
-- July 5, April Wine and Carl Dixon (The Guess Who tribute).
-- July 12, Clay Walker.
-- July 19, Peace Frog (The Doors tribute).
-- July 26, The Bacon Brothers, Landsharks Band (Jimmy Buffett tribute).
-- Aug. 2, Rumours (Fleetwood Mac tribute), Practically Petty (Tom Petty tribute).
-- Aug. 9, 38 Special.
-- Aug. 16, Tommy DeCarlo (music of Boston), Jason Scheff (music of Chicago), August Zadra (music of Styx).

Tickets at four price points (General Admission, VIP, Premium and Front Row) can be purchased after 10 a.m. Tuesday by going to www.bataviaconcerts.com.

Tickets are $15 for General Admission, $30 for VIP, $60 for Premium and $75 for front row seats.  All tickets can be redeemed at Player’s Club at any time in the three days following the concert for $10 Free Play.

A season pass for general admission will be $100 (a savings of $20), and season passes for VIP tickets are $200 (a savings of $40). A Premium Season Pass is $400 (a savings of $80). Season passes may only be purchased online.

Until New Year’s Day, tickets purchased online or at the Lucky Treasures Gift shop for the General Admission section will be only $10.  Concertgoers will still receive $10 in Free Play on show day with this ticket.

Photo by Mike Pettinella.

WROTB president says health insurance provided to only three long-serving directors

By Mike Pettinella

Other than three longtime Western New York Off-Track Betting Corp. directors, no members of the company’s board are receiving or will be eligible to receive health insurance benefits going forward.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek, responding to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Batavian today, said that the public benefit company is paying the health insurance premiums for Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester), Thomas Wamp (Livingston County) and Richard Ricci (Seneca County).

The board of directors consists of 17 members, representing 15 counties plus the cities of Rochester and Buffalo.

“These individuals have qualified for a Medicare plan through Western Regional OTB due to their longevity prior to the board being terminated by state mandate,” Wojtaszek said. “No one else on the board has any coverage.”

New York State legislation last May dismantled the previous board and forced the municipalities to either reappoint the director or appoint someone new. Bassett, Wamp and Ricci were reappointed along with seven other rural county directors.

Following Wednesday’s board meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming, Wojtaszek reported that WROTB’s revamped health insurance plan for employees, other than board members, will be unveiled soon.

“We have the members of the (Labor Management Health Fund) coming in to speak with our employees within the next two to three weeks to inform them of the program,” he said. “And we'll see who takes advantage of it.”

Wojtaszek said two programs will be offered, with an eye on providing something affordable for younger workers and their families. He said WROTB is part of a large consortium with other businesses in the area.

WROTB’s program is a self-insured one where the company pays the cost of claims and also a firm to administer the plan.

When pressed about board members’ health insurance – something that has been in the press for several months and labeled as a “gold-plated” plan for directors, Wojtaszek said all of that changed for any board member approved after July 1, 2021.

“Nobody who is a board member currently is involved in our active (LMHF) program. They could be on Medicare because of an old program (referring to Bassett, Wamp and Ricci),” he said.

Directors who had health insurance through WROTB prior to the reorganization this summer are no longer eligible for the corporation’s LMHF plan, he said. The plan is administered by Lawley Insurance.

In related action, the board approved a resolution to renew a contract with Garland Insurance & Financial Services of Phoenix, Ariz., to provide commercial insurance – liability, property and directors & officers – from through May 31, 2024 at a cost of $1,147,215.46.

Wojtaszek said the premium reflects an increase of 8 percent. 

He also mentioned that WROTB has hired a consultant, Alterity Group, to work on a bidding process after the contract expires. WROTB has contracted with Garland since 2015, he said.

Member municipality distributions to approach $10 million in 2024: WROTB chief financial officer

By Mike Pettinella

Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. management is projecting net revenue from its racing and gaming operations to approach $86.4 million in 2024, resulting in nearly $10 million in surcharge and earnings to be distributed to its 17 member municipalities.

At Wednesday’s board of directors meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming on Park Road, WROTB Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach went over the operating plan – or budget – for next year.

The plan is a comprehensive document detailing income and expense streams for all aspects of the public benefit company, and is based on actual numbers through October of this year and industry trends.

“It’s a work in progress,” Leach said, but acknowledged that it close to being finalized. The final plan will be presented to the board for review at its December meeting. After board approval, it is submitted to the New York State Gaming Commission.

According to the report, the 17 municipalities, including Genesee County, are expected to receive $606,616 in surcharge distributions and $9,268,586 in earnings distribution for a total of $9,875,202 in the 2024 calendar year. That is up from $9,654,748 to be distributed in 2023.

Surcharge funds are derived from a 5 percent fee collected from patrons on winning wagers at WROTB branches and EZ Bet locations. Leach said the earnings distribution is about 11 percent of the net revenue from operations.

While the 2024 distribution projections reflect the corporation’s record earnings the past two years, Leach said the numbers are more impressive when looking back to 2019, when surcharge and earnings distributions hit the $3.6 million mark, and considering the impact of COVID-19 the following year.

WROTB lost $9.6 million in 2020, Leach reported. Despite that, the corporation has and is projected to distribute $38 million in surcharge and earnings for the six-year period, 2019-2024.

“We ate into our coffers some $9.6 million in 2020. And that, from a financial perspective, is incredible if you think about it. That we will be distributing and anticipate, project, to distribute $38 million,” she said.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek added that profit realized in that year, beside the Payroll Protection Plan money to keep employees on the job, was from the off-track betting internet wagering side.

Batavia Downs Gaming was closed for six months due to the pandemic. It has bounced back strongly, however, with revenues, net win (credits played into the Video Lottery Terminals minus credits won) and distributions increasing each year. Leach is anticipating the net win total to increase to $89 million in 2024.

Leach and Wojtaszek touted the “very good news” when talking about gaming, food and beverage, and The Hotel at Batavia Downs, but painted a different picture when the subject turned to the harness horse racing industry and the financial health of the corporation’s eight brick-and-mortar OTB branches.

Only two of the branches – Lyell Avenue in Rochester and Clinton in Erie County – are expected to be profitable in 2024. Operational losses of the branches are at $418,202 through Oct. 30, 2023, continuing a downward trend.

Leach reported that all of WROTB’s EZ Bet (self-service) locations, however, have increased the company’s bottom line; none are in the red.

“On the OTB pari-mutuel side, they’re competing for the gambling dollar with sports betting, which came into New York State in January 2022,” she said. “Plus, we’re required to make statutory payments to other racing entities in New York State based on antiquated handle numbers from 1993 and 2002 when the handle was much more robust. We’re getting no legislative relief on that end.”

Wojtaszek said a “day of reckoning is coming” for horse racing, again mentioning sports betting and also a doping scandal that has rocked the industry.

“The sport has been damaged. The numbers are down,” he said. “Jackie's just giving the numbers from the last couple of years. If you look at what our handle was relative to OTB, when you go back a decade or two, it was $200 million. That was the handle -- $200 million.”

He said the horse racing industry needs to “police itself” better. He mentioned a recent CBS “60 Minutes” story that focused on a doping (drug) scandal that has resulted in deaths to numerous horses and prompted Congress to create the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to institute uniform rules for the sport across the country.

Wojtaszek said WROTB is working with a consultant to help the corporation going forward “but it’s going to be much more expensive to have our live racing relative to the testing. But it’s something that’s necessary.”

State law mandates that Batavia Downs Gaming must operate a horse track to keep its gaming license.

The corporation has reduced the number of OTB branches (or parlors) over the years and more cutting may be on the way.

Director Vincent Horrigan (Chautauqua County) asked if WROTB will continue “to live with” the branch losses or “do we turn it around?”

“That’s a great question and worth a discussion after the first of the year,” Wojtaszek replied.

Currently, the eight branches – located in Auburn, Jamestown, Erie County (two), Monroe County (three) and Niagara County -- employ 31 people.

Erie County director ready to look into all aspects of WROTB operation

By Mike Pettinella
Jennifer Hibit

The Erie County representative on the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. board today said it is incumbent upon her colleagues to look into the company’s legal issues that have yet to be resolved.

“I think we need to address those issues,” said Jennifer Hibit, (photo at right), responding to a question about the status of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former WROTB executive Michael Nolan and a reported FBI investigation into the corporation’s hiring practices.

“I think we need to look into them. And I think when all the new board members are seated, I think we'll look into those issues and hear from both sides.”

Hibit was appointed to the board in June, about a month after the previous board was dismantled as a result of legislation approved by Gov. Kathy Hochul and leaders of the Assembly and Senate.

The director of human resources at the Erie County Water Authority, Hibit is also the secretary of the Erie County Democratic Committee and the former chief of staff for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

She said she looks forward to learning more about the company in order to make educated decisions.

“I think we need to know what's happening. I think it's important to be informed. And if we can help put those things behind us and move forward, then that's what I'm here to do,” she said.

Hibit said she had made no judgments before joining the board despite what has been circulating in the media.

“I came in with an open mind, right? There’s always room for improvement every place you go,” she said. “And I think that's my job here is to listen, learn, and contribute to making Western New York Regional OTB better. And that's what I plan to do.”

At last month’s board meeting, Hibit voted against appointing Dennis Bassett, a Democrat representing the City of Rochester, as the board’s permanent chairperson. She said her decision was more procedural.

“I didn't think that it was fair to cast a vote for a chair moving forward, and I didn't realize that we elected a chair in January without all of the new members present and without of them all having a say in that,” she explained. “So that was really my point behind that.”

The City of Buffalo’s representative, Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, has yet to obtain her license to serve from the New York Gaming Commission, and Monroe County’s representative, James A. Wilmot, was not at the October meeting.

“I just think they should have a say in the chair. So, I just voted for one meeting (to make Bassett the temporary chair) to move the process forward,” she offered. “I’m glad that Dennis took the seat.”

Hibit's vote holds the most power on the board, which now operates under a weighted voting system based on the population of the municipality.

Looking ahead, Hibit said she will work toward measures to ensure transparency. Last month, she suggested that the board meetings be livestreamed to the public.

“Transparency is super important,” she said. “Absolutely.”

WROTB board seeks accountability when it comes to sporting, entertainment events in Buffalo, Rochester

By Mike Pettinella

Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. directors today took on the task of passing a couple dozen resolutions that had been set aside, so to speak, while members of the revamped board obtained their licensing and right to vote from the New York Gaming Commission.

Many of the resolutions dealt with routine contract renewals such as maintenance, promotions and computers, and were passed with little or no discussion.

Such wasn’t the case for Resolution #62-2023, a measure authorizing the public benefit company to spend up to $25,000 through the end of the year for food and beverages at Highmark Stadium for Buffalo Bills’ games and concerts. When that came up, directors were ready with their questions.

The use of sporting event and concert tickets has been a sore subject for WROTB management since a 2021 audit from the state Comptroller’s office that, among other things, pointed out a lack of oversight of perks given to major players at Batavia Downs Gaming.

Erie County Director Jennifer Hibit, who holds the most voting power under the weighted voting system installed last May, asked whether a list of who attended a specific event could be provided to the board.

Marketing Director Ryan Hasenauer said he keeps track of who received the tickets, adding that the tickets could then be given to somebody else.

Hibit said, “I think it would be helpful to see who’s attended.”

“I mean, we know there have been issues with this in the past, and I think it’s important to know who’s attending these events – who the tickets went to,” she said.

WROTB President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek credited Hasenauer for maintaining the ticket list.

“And that’s why we’ve released it to the public and anybody else who has “FOILed” that information,” Wojtaszek said, speaking of the Freedom of Information Law.

Hasenauer then referred to the state Comptroller’s audit.

“Their recommendation was to track the tickets in the way that we are doing – the way we were already doing it – and they wanted to make sure we’re doing that moving forward,” he said. “What we’re doing now is at the recommendation of the state.”

A suggestion then was made to have a “sign-up sheet” at the events, not only for suites at Highmark Stadium but also when tickets are used for events at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester and the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Director Edward Morgan (Orleans County) said he didn’t think that was necessary because the board is now keen to the situation and will be monitoring events more closely.

Hasenauer clarified that tickets are awarded in two ways – to high rollers who reach a certain level of activity and as giveaways on “soft nights” such as Tuesdays and Wednesdays to drive traffic to the Park Road facility.

Temporary Chair Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester) said that “in the spirit of transparency, we should know in advance who is going to use the tickets.”

Wojtaszek said that once the ticket is issued, it belongs to the recipient. 

“We can’t stop them from giving it to someone else,” he noted.

Bassett then replied, “My goal is not to stop them, my goal is that when we get questioned, I’d like to be able to articulate that we're using these things in a way we want to use. I'm not I'm not trying to police them …”

Director James Wilmot (Monroe County) said he has attended events hosted by other businesses and never has seen a sign-up sheet.

“Whether I bring a spouse, friend, colleague, I'm not one of those people to get suspicious with sign-up sheets, but I know a lot of people that would,” he said. “And based on my previous experience with gamblers, who own various properties, they have no interest in listing who's with them. And there's some privacy stuff with that too.”

Hibit said she understood that once the ticket was issued, WROTB had no right to it. She did, however, ask if the board could see a report of the event “to see if there’s an issue that we could address it moving forward.”

Bassett said he appreciated the dialogue over this matter, acknowledging that the board “might be a little sensitive because we’ve been scrutinized with regard to these tickets.”

“We don’t want to over-scrutinize ourselves and cause problems with the people that we want to entertain ... so, I’m not in favor of a sign-in.”

Hasenauer advised that the resolution, as well as similar measures at Blue Cross Arena ($30,000 for food and beverages) and KeyBank Center ($75,000 for food and beverages), will run through the 2023 season and into the spring of 2024. All three resolutions passed unanimously.

In other action, the board:

-- Approved spending $275,000 with Tops Friendly Markets for $20 gift cards used to promote the Hotel at Batavia Downs. Hasenauer said the Sunday through Thursday promotion, which started in June 2022, has been a tremendous success. “We’re booking over 700 rooms a month with this package,” he said, adding that most customers use the cards for gas or groceries at the nearby Tops Market.

-- Approved a resolution to conduct winter racing in January and February 2024 on Monday and Thursday afternoons. The Western New York Harness Horsemen’s Association has agreed to reimburse WROTB for any and all costs associated with conducting the additional 16 meets.

-- Voted to keep Bassett in the interim chair post through next month’s meeting. The board is expected to decide on a permanent chairperson in January.

-- Held a moment of silence in memory of Kenneth Lauderdale Jr., longtime director from Wayne County, who passed away on Oct. 25.

Western Regional OTB board promotes Bassett, approves sales of branches in Oswego, Monroe counties

By Mike Pettinella

For the first time in several months, the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. board of directors had a quorum at today’s meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming and was able to conduct a bit of business.

Initially, the board elected Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester) as the temporary chair to cover just this meeting, but later on (following several minutes of discussion about other matters), decided to keep him in that position through the November planning meeting.

The unattended resolutions have been piling up, with WROTB President Henry Wojtaszek informing the board that up to 70 resolutions will need to be considered before the end of the year.

With that being said, it was incumbent upon the board to have a chair in place, Wojtaszek noted.

A motion was made to elect Bassett as the permanent chair, but that failed to pass due to the board’s weighted voting system. All board members eligible to vote, except Erie County’s Jennifer Hibit, supported Bassett. However, since Erie County’s vote has more strength, based on population, the motion was defeated. City of Buffalo director Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney apparently was not eligible to vote as she is waiting for licensing from the New York State Gaming Commission.

Subsequently, other motions were brought forward to elect Bassett temporarily – first for October and then into November – and they carried unanimously.

The board did pass a pair of resolutions pertaining to sales of former WROTB branches in Phoenix, Oswego County, and West Ridge Road, Monroe County.

WROTB sold the Phoenix parlor for $750,000 to CM Family Trust and the West Ridge Road branch to Michael J. Cerone for $500,000.

Wojtaszek said he, with assistance from attorneys and procurement staff, did their best to maximize the sale prices.

Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach said the proceeds from the West Ridge Road sale will count toward the public benefit corporation’s bottom line as distributions in a normal sale but would not have an impact on distributions to municipalities for 2023.

She did say that the Phoenix sale has the “potential” to increase funds to the 15 counties and two major cities.

Mistakes? Yes. Corruption? No, says WROTB's temporary board chair

By Mike Pettinella
Dennis Bassett
From left, President Henry Wojtaszek, Temporary Board Chair Dennis Bassett and VP/Operations Scott Kiedrowski at today's WROTB board meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming. Photo by Mike Pettinella.

While admitting that mistakes have been made, the City of Rochester representative on the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. bristled when “alleged corruption” was brought up during his talk with the media following today’s directors meeting at Batavia Downs Gaming on Park Road.

City of Rochester representative Dennis Bassett – who was elected as the temporary board chair through November -- took exception to a Buffalo-based reporter’s query about whether the revamped board was intent “on instituting some reforms and cleaning up alleged corruption.”

“Well, we've got not only (new directors) from Erie (County) and (the City of) Buffalo, but we got a new member from Monroe County, which based upon the way the vote goes, that’s pretty good,” Bassett said, referring to the weighted voting system that was put in by New York State mandate last May. “I’d like to say we've got new board members from Erie, from Buffalo, from Monroe County that add new blood.

“And I think corruption is a is a very strong term. I've been on this board, as I said 14 years, and I don't see corruption. We’ve seen some honest procedural mistakes … and we should be held accountable for that. I'd like to say we did everything perfectly, but we haven't. But I think we -- with good intentions – made mistakes.”

Bassett said the board has addressed the problems such as the use of sporting event tickets, the way mileage is reimbursed and health insurance for board members.

“There's been some stubbing of the toes. And yes, I'd like to say we have done … everything right, but we haven’t,” he offered. “We’ve stubbed our toe. But I can also say that in those areas where we’ve had problems, we have corrected them. And that’s the key thing. We’ve listened. We’ve made some very – I would call it -- enthusiastic decisions, whether it be mileage, whether it be our entertainment, whether it be the things that we can control.”

When asked about the former board, which was dominated by Republicans, he said, “Well, you know, to the victor goes the spoils.”

“I'm a Democrat, registered Democrat, and most of the board members during my time were Republicans. And guess what? I never once felt slighted.  I will continue to say on this board, we make business decisions. We owe the municipalities and the two cities to make the best business decisions we can so we can put money in their coffers.

“We don’t stand and say this is a Republican decision or this is a Democrat (decision). Is it a good business decision? And that has been our mantra since I’ve been on the board.”

When he was asked whether spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years on lawyers and lobbyists was a good business decision, Bassett said the board didn’t have “the skill set” to ascertain the correct answers.

“We've had to hire counsel because of some of the things – whether it be the Nolan lawsuit (a wrongful termination suit by former WROTB executive Michael Nolan) … and the (FBI) investigations, sadly to say we had to do some of those things because we didn’t have the skill set to answer the questions that were proposed. But I think we’ve weathered that storm, and I don’t think we’ve got to continue down that path,” he said.

Bassett said he sees the “new blood” as a positive for the board. Actually, six new directors joined the board after the shakeup that terminated the previous board – Jennifer Hibit (Erie County), Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney (Buffalo), James Wilmot (Monroe County), Terrance Baxter (Cayuga County), Paul Bartow (Schuyler County) and Charles Zambito (Genesee County).

“I think it’s good,” Bassett said. “And just the new change we made with having people who are really younger and working, for us to be able to Zoom committee meetings so people can take advantage of getting their ideas (out there) is a big step,”

During this morning’s meeting, the board agreed to give directors the option of attending future committee meetings via Zoom videoconferencing.

It also will be looking into a suggestion from Hibit to livestream the board meetings to, as she said, “make the board more transparent and accessible to the public.”

Bassett emphasized that there will be more transparency going forward and talked about having a strategic plan in place beyond one or two years.

“I've shared with the team that we're on top of the world now,” he said. “We're making good profits. We’re having good numbers. But we need to put together a strategic plan so that we can look out for more than one year, and look at more than several months. How do we look in three and four or five years?

“The world is not going to be the same two and three years from now? So how are we planning? How are we getting ourselves ready for some of the things that may happen that cause us not to be having these record earnings.”

WROTB leaders present list of improvements, hope to add EZ Bet locations in Erie County

By Mike Pettinella

A robust list of building improvements is on the table for Batavia Downs Gaming on Park Road.

Senior managers of Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. updated board of directors this morning of their plans to enhance the facility, which already has seen extensive renovations in recent months.

Upgrades include new restrooms, expansion of the salt barn, and painting and other improvements to rooms at The Hotel at Batavia Downs, Chief Operating Officer Scott Kiedrowski said.

“We did complete a set of restroom upstairs … and towards the clubhouse, we have completed the renovation of the ladies room, and we’ll be moving to the men’s room as soon as racing quiets down a little bit in the month of November,” he said.

Kiedrowski said the company’s budget included adding storage space to the salt barn, with the work to be done by Batavia Downs Gaming employees.

Concerning the hotel, he said a “walkthrough” of the 84-room inn was conducted last week.

“The suites get the most use – they’re the most popular rooms we have. We’re going to be putting them out of service next week for painting and upgrades to those because of the high turnover rate,” he said.

He said overall the hotel is in “great shape,” adding that he will be scheduling weekly carpet cleaning in the hallways and a reworking of the laundry process, specifically upgrading the dryer system.

Kiedrowski then turned to the grandstands, an area that he said needs attention.

“(President/CEO) Henry (Wojtaszek) would like to make sure that the flooring (in the grandstands) is all uniform, and the ventilation, ceiling and lighting need to be addressed,” he said. “So, you’ll probably see some changes in the grandstands starting the first quarter of 2024.”

He added that Chief Financial Officer Jacquelyne Leach and her team have been working on the installation of a new Point-Of-Sale system called Agilysys, which will replace the facility’s Micro system.

“The Agilysys system is what most casinos across the country use as well as an inventory system to go along with our new warehouse,” he said.

The unveiling of the harness track’s new pace truck is about a week away, he said, noting that the total cost of the vehicle, including the gate on the back, is around $100,000.

“We’ll have that here for probably everyone to see next month, and I believe Henry is working with the director of sales to have one of our vendors wrap that vehicle, which will hopefully pay for any related costs to that.”

In closing, Kiedrowski urged directors to start thinking about the corporation’s strategic five-year plan as it relates to the physical plant.

Director Dennis Bassett (City of Rochester) asked if Scott could choose a couple of board members and a key staff person to be on a committee to oversee the process.

In other developments, the board:

  • Learned that live winter harness racing likely will be returning to Batavia Downs in January and February. Kiedrowski reported that talks with Western New York Harness Horsemen’s Association leaders have been fruitful.

“We’re looking at doing it again, the same routine,” Kiedrowski said, noting that the WNYHHA has agreed to cover all expenses of the 16-date matinee meet, which will run on Mondays and Thursdays starting at 3 p.m. 

He said that the cost to conduct the meet last year, considering clubhouse, labor and equipment expenses, was around $322,000.

  • Heard that Wojtaszek will be pushing for legislation at the state level to give WROTB more leverage in placing EZ Bet terminals in Erie County. Currently, Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg has veto power over locating EZ Bets within a 30-mile radius of its track.

“I think we could easily get between five and 15 within the next year if that provision is removed,” he said. “So, we will ask those who are responsible for governing those areas to take a real hard look at removing that provision. And that will be probably one of the top priorities that we have in terms of legislation.”

  • Inquired about management’s plan for the two smoking rooms when the current waiver expires in 2025. The board is looking for an alternative in case the waiver isn’t renewed.

Wojtaszek said that if the waiver isn’t extended, customers would have to go outside to smoke and that some type of accommodations would be extended to them.

WROTB's Rochester director stands behind Wojtaszek, senior management as record revenues continue

By Mike Pettinella
Dennis Bassett

A longtime director of Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. this morning threw his unwavering support behind President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek, stating that the public benefit company has “weathered the storm” to produce record results over the past two years.

“We’re excited about how Henry has kept his eye on the ball,” said Dennis Bassett, the City of Rochester representative since 2009 (photo at right), following the monthly board meeting at WROTB’s Park Place headquarters. “He's been a good leader for Batavia Downs. He's garnered the support of the board, and I think we should continue that support moving forward.”

When asked to comment about the legal turmoil that has surrounded WROTB in recent years – pending lawsuits, a critical report from the New York State Comptroller’s Office and a state-mandated reorganization of the board of directors, Bassett said he sees it more as “opportunities” for the corporation.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it turmoil as much as I would call it opportunities for the board,” he responded. “We went through some times where we were questioned about a number of things, and we feel the board has weathered that storm -- we've weathered the storm.

“We have made sure that we made good business decisions with the hotel. We didn't have concerts three or four years ago. We didn't open up the facility to corporate meetings. Now we have close to 100 corporate meetings now. Five years ago, we probably had five or six corporate meetings.”

Bassett said expanding the facility’s use has been the result of “good board input, its business experience and … the help of leadership to make this place a destination.”

He declined to comment on any pending litigation, which includes a whistleblower lawsuit by former Chief Operating Officer Michael Nolan against WROTB, former Board Chair Richard Bianchi and Wojtaszek.

“That is something that I would like to stay away from. I really don't want to comment on those things,” he said.

Bassett defended the previous board’s decision to extend three-year contracts to senior management – an action that took place in May, just prior to state legislation that disbanded that board and put new voting parameters in place (giving more weight to Democrat Party-controlled municipalities, including Rochester).

“I think our decision to do that was very important because it gives us a little stability with our leadership here at Batavia Downs,” he said. “We don’t want good, talented people to be looking elsewhere. So, the contracts showed that with any change in the board and any changes moving forward, we have a solid group of people who can manage the business. And they've been managing it successfully for the last few years. And this year -- and last year – we’ve seen record results.”

VP/Operations Sean Schiano reported at the meeting that the net win for August of $7.1 million puts that month in the top five all-time and that September's net win is expected to surpass the $7 million mark. Net win is the amount money left in the Video Lottery Terminal after paying out customers.

Directors present at today’s meeting were unable to conduct any official business (such as passing any resolutions) because of the lack of a quorum. With directors from Erie County and the City of Buffalo (Jennifer Hibit and Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, respectively) absent, only 68 percent of the board in terms of voting power was in attendance, Wojtaszek said.

Erie and Monroe, plus Buffalo and Rochester, account for 62 of the 100 votes in the weighted format. Genesee County, the host municipality, has two votes. A group of rural counties is mounting a legal challenge to the state's decision to eliminate the previous board, citing "Home Rule" legislation that has been in place for quite some time.

Wojtaszek said that he expects all of the directors to receive licenses from the State Gaming Commission by the October meeting.

Court of Appeals rules in Nolan's favor on statute of limitations issue in suit against WROTB

By Mike Pettinella

The U.S. Court of Appeals, Second District, on Monday, overturned a statute of limitations ruling by a lower court and reinstated a lawsuit brought by Michael Nolan, a former Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. chief operating officer, against the public benefit company, its former board chair and its current president.

A panel of three judges ruled that Nolan, a longtime WROTB employee until his dismissal in December 2020, filed his Notice of Claim complaint in August 2021, which was within the three-year time period as permitted by law.

The appellate court found that Judge William M. Skretny of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York applied the wrong amount of time – a year and 90 days – for Nolan to file.

Yesterday’s action returns the case back to Skretny to consider the other claims made by Nolan, who contends that he was retaliated against by the corporation, former Board Chairman Richard Bianchi and current President/Chief Executive Officer Henry Wojtaszek for sharing information with federal and state authorities as part of an inquiry into practices such as health insurance plans for board members, use of sports tickets and luxury boxes, and awarding of contracts.

An attorney for WROTB today said that he expected Skretny’s decision to be overturned, calling the appellate court’s judgment “just a very technical issue.”

“We had sought to dismiss the complaint on multiple grounds applying to all the claims, but Judge Skretny just focused on one claim in his order. So, his decision in the issue on the appeal was, like, very, very narrow,” said Aaron Saykin of Hodgson Russ LLP of Buffalo. “What happens now is that it’s been remanded back to Judge Skretny to consider, potentially, all of those other grounds that we moved on.”

Saykin said his firm “moved to dismiss every claim, and we had multiple grounds to do it.”

As reported on The Batavian in August 2021, Nolan’s lawsuit calls for $14.5 million in compensatory damages plus Nolan’s reinstatement to his former COO position, reinstatement of full fringe benefits and seniority rights, damages sustained due to the violation including, without limitation, the compensation for lost wages, benefits and other remuneration, and payment of all reasonable costs, disbursements, and attorney's fees.

Steven M. Cohen of Tiveron Law LLC, also of Buffalo, contacted today, said the case “immediately” reverts to Skretny’s courtroom and that “we will see justice done.”

“As the decision indicates, WROTB’s defense acknowledged at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that they knew the basis for their motion to dismiss was meritless and they were expecting Judge Skretny to be reversed,” Cohen said. “Since they are funded with taxpayer’s money, WROTB has resources to do things like this and wear Michael Nolan down. But we are not going away. We will see justice done.  Henry’s political influence has found a limit. “

Cohen added that Gov. Hochul’s decision to dismiss the entire board of directors (in May) “for ethical violations, speaks volumes.”

Saykin said the statute of limitations issue was a Federal (constitutional) claim, while the other claims are State issues that can be heard in State court.

Going forward, he said his firm has asked the court to submit some supplemental briefings on the other issues.

“The court will decide whether to do that and what the timeline will be,” he said. “But we feel very good about all the other arguments that we've made that are yet to be considered.”

Previously: Lawsuit seeks $14.5 million for former WROTB officer

Previously: WROTB fires chief operating officer who files Notice of Claim seeking $5 million in damages

Authentically Local