Local personal injury attorney William Mattar wants to expand his law firm’s office on Main Street in Amherst to accommodate his plans to expand his practice into other states.
Mattar also wants to get tax breaks from the Amherst Industrial Development Agency for the $4 million project, which would add 20 new jobs to the law firm’s 74-person staff. Mattar’s plan would renovate the firm’s existing office at 6720 Main St., two blocks west of Transit Road. The firm also has purchased a neighboring Jehovah’s Witnesses church building at 6710 Main St. that it plans to tear down and replace with a 19,500-square-foot office building.
But the project, which is set to come before the IDA board at its meeting next Friday, also is raising questions about whether tax incentives are warranted for a law firm seeking a bigger office.
The eligibility guidelines followed by all of the IDAs in Erie County generally prohibit tax breaks for professional services firms, from lawyers to accountants and doctors, largely because they serve a mostly local client base and, consequently, don’t bring much new money into a region.
Mattar, in his application to the IDA, contends that the project is eligible for tax breaks because most of the project – 80 percent of it – will involve back-office work, a call center, document management and national legal services that are eligible for incentives. Only 20 percent of the project will entail retail-level legal work.
Back-office work can be done anywhere in the country, and Mattar noted that the firm also has considered putting the expansion in Detroit. He also noted that the incentives would offset New York’s “excessively” high taxes and help the law firm expand its presence statewide and into other parts of the country. Eventually, Mattar said, the firm could get half of its sales from outside New York.
He told the agency that if it does not grant it the tax breaks it is seeking, the scope of the project would be “substantially reduced,” with the Jehovah’s Witnesses church building likely being demolished but the property remaining vacant.
Yet Mattar, who told the IDA he is a believer in the Western New York community and has a particular affinity for Amherst, wants his law firm to expand locally. He noted that the neighboring property currently does not pay property taxes because it is a church. Even if the Mattar expansion received tax breaks, it would bring the neighboring property back onto the tax rolls and generate new tax revenue for local governments and schools.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, a frequent IDA critic, said providing tax breaks to the Mattar project is a bad idea.
Ryan argued that incentives for professional services firms are prohibited under the current eligibility guidelines because they are generally viewed as doing little to generate new wealth within a community because they mostly serve local clients.
He also challenged Mattar’s argument that the project merits tax breaks because most of it would be used for back-office work that is permitted under the eligibility guidelines.
“Every law firm in Western New York could say the bulk of their office is for back-office work,” Ryan said.
That could set a precedent that would open the door to other law firms seeking tax breaks when they look to upgrade their offices, Ryan said. “If you say yes to Mattar, how to do you say no to Cellino and Barnes? How do you say no to Lipsitz Green?” he asked.
Neither Mattar nor IDA officials could be reached to comment. The agency will hold a public hearing on the project at 8:30 a.m. next Friday, just before the start of its board meeting at the IDA offices, 4287 Main St., Amherst.