The retirement of two top officials at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency creates the opportunity for policy changes at the agency, often criticized for handing out tax breaks to undeserving projects.
Former Rep. John J. LaFalce has just ended his 14-month tenure as chairman. Alfred Culliton has led the agency since 2006 and is retiring at the end of this year from his posts as chief operating officer and acting chief executive officer.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz will be appointing the new chairman, and he will have to lead the discussion on any changes in procedures.
For example, there have been questions about the amount of information provided to the agency to judge whether certain projects deserved tax breaks. That was especially important in the case of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.’s $100-million medical office at Main and High streets. Tax breaks were held up for a time until additional information was provided.
Tax breaks seem to be almost a given with any new project. You can’t blame developers for asking, even if they’d do the project anyway. The job for the IDA is to decide which projects truly need the breaks, and make that case to the public.
The application process now in place does not ask for a sufficiently detailed breakdown of a project. While that may make it easier on board members because they don’t have to wade through reams of data, the process makes it difficult to determine whether a project is worthy of tax breaks.
A factory seeking tax breaks to move into the area offers a relatively easy decision. More often board members are making difficult decisions on projects on the cusp of eligibility or ones involving adaptive reuse. In those cases more information will help the board members make the right decision. In the case of the Ciminelli project, Poloncarz called for more details before backing what critics had called a “glorified medical office.”
The ECIDA is making some useful changes. Last week the agency adopted a policy that forces companies receiving IDA tax breaks to hire at least nine of every 10 construction workers from within the eight counties of Western New York. It would mean that the vast majority of the wages paid to construction workers on projects backed by local taxpayers would go to workers who live and spend their pay here.
Improvements in the operation of industrial development agencies should be inevitable. With two new top officials coming on board, the ECIDA should commit to those improvements.