Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is urging Amherst officials to reject local personal injury attorney William Mattar’s request for $550,000 in tax breaks for the law firm’s proposed $4 million office expansion project on Main Street.
“Lawyer’s offices should not get tax breaks,” Poloncarz said in a letter to Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein, a member of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency board of directors, which will consider the Mattar project at its meeting Friday morning.
Mattar is proposing to expand his Amherst office and add 20 new jobs to the law firm’s 74-person staff to help pave the way for the law firm to expand its practice into other states.
Mattar would renovate the firm’s existing office at 6720 Main St., located 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.
Mattar, in his application to the Amherst IDA, said the project would not proceed without the tax breaks, which are needed to offset the $50,000 in demolition costs and New York state’s “excessively high” taxes. Mattar said the firm has considered locating the expansion in Detroit, where he expects incentives would be available if the firm were to establish a Michigan office.
“The economics for the expansion do not work without the incentives from the IDA,” Mattar said in an interview. “We believe the application meets all of the IDA approval requirements and should be approved.”
Poloncarz, however, said law firms generally should not receive tax breaks because they “do not increase the net wealth of our community.”
He also said he was not convinced that tax breaks were essential for the project to proceed in Amherst, and he doubted that there was a “realistic chance” of the law firm locating outside of Western New York.
Poloncarz also said if the law firm were to establish a practice outside New York, he was not convinced that “a substantial portion” of the fees generated by that legal work would flow back to the Buffalo Niagara region. He noted that none of the 17 attorneys profiled on Mattar’s website indicated that they were licensed to practice law in any other state.
“It is likely that the legal work that will generate out-of-area fees will be done by and paid to out-of-state attorneys,” Poloncarz wrote.
The eligibility guidelines followed by all of the IDAs in Erie County generally prohibit tax breaks for professional services firms, largely because they serve a mostly local client base and, consequently, don’t bring much new money into a region.
Mattar contends that the project is eligible for tax breaks because most of the project – 80 percent – 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.
He also challenged Poloncarz’s contention that the project would not create new wealth, noting that the new jobs would add $650,000 to the law firm’s annual payroll in Amherst. “I think the project creates jobs and economic advantages,” he said.
James J. Allen, the Amherst IDA’s executive director, also disagreed with Poloncarz.
“He, unfortunately, doesn’t understand the project,” Allen said.
The tax breaks would not cover any improvements to Mattar’s existing office at 6720 Main St., but would go toward the new building the firm wants to build next door, where the work done would center around back-office operations for Medicaid claims processing, veterans benefits, and the centralization of records for all Mattar offices, Allen said.
“Because they are back-office operations, they are eligible for agency assistance,” Allen said. “The ‘retail’ operations of the Mattar Law Offices are not eligible and are not subject to this inducement.”
Poloncarz, in his letter, questioned the distinction between back-office work and legal work.
“Every law firm contains back-office elements to it, whether it be secretaries, paralegals, nurses, investigators or general office staff,” he wrote. “Any work to be performed by such personnel would be directly related to the principal purpose of the business – the provision of legal services.”
Mattar also noted that, even with tax breaks, the project still would generate additional tax revenue for local schools and municipalities because the Jehovah’s Witnesses church was exempt from property taxes. IDA officials estimate that the project would generate more than $200,800 in new tax revenue during the seven-year period that the law firm would receive tax breaks, should they be approved by the agency’s board.
The agency will hold a public hearing on the project at 8:30 a.m. Friday, just before the start of its board meeting at the IDA offices, 4287 Main St., Amherst.