Barring the unexpected, every county taxpayer will take a hit this morning. If we had been hurt in a car, as the slogan goes, we’d all know who to call. But who do we turn to when the source of the injury – instead of the remedy – is the ubiquitous William Mattar?
Actually, Mattar’s “Hurt in a Car” law firm is not mainly to blame for our pain. Mattar is just the intended recipient of an overly generous, loophole-leaping Amherst Industrial Development Agency. The accountable-to-nobody authority is the most eager of our handful of town development agencies to dole out corporate welfare. Recent statewide tightening of the giveaways merely forced Jim Allen & Co. to get more creative.
Barring a postponement, I expect a show of creativity at this morning’s IDA board meeting. On the table is $550,000 in tax breaks for the Mattar law firm’s proposed $4 million office expansion on Main Street. I’m not sure how many extra TV commercials a $550,000 handout pays for, but I suspect we are about to find out.
More than half of the proposed subsidy is in sales tax, the county’s share of which comes out of everyone’s pocket, from Clarence to Colden. Which means that Amherst’s shadow development agency will be reaching into all of our wallets. Its generosity involves a rule-bending tax break to a law firm that is staked to the region and can afford to carpet-bomb the airwaves with ads. I’m happy that Mattar’s firm wants to expand, but I don’t see why you, me and everyone else in the county has to help.
Sean Ryan, the Buffalo assemblyman critical of IDA excess, said the Amherst IDA funding the handout with county taxes “is like playing poker with someone else’s money.”
Sadly, Amherst’s IDA isn’t bluffing – and, given its autonomy, nobody can call the bet. That’s what makes this so galling. Aside from a private-party lawsuit targeting the proposed deal – and nothing seems to be in the wind – Mattar & Co. can take what the Amherst IDA wants us to give them.
Ryan has a clampdown IDA bill that he said is getting traction in the State Legislature. It would, among other things, force these deals through the gauntlet of the local town and school boards – which are unlikely to detour tax dollars otherwise headed for roads, sewers and schoolbooks. But until then, we have to take what the IDAs dish out.
“This deal is another example of the culture we’ve created,” Ryan said. “Companies feel entitled to tax breaks, and the Amherst IDA is part of the problem.”
IDAs are not supposed to prop up “professional service firms” such as Mattar’s, because – like doctors’ offices, pizza places and liquor stores – they are staked to the community. Their business is local, their customers are local and they don’t bring in many outside dollars. So they don’t rate taxpayer help if they move into bigger digs or add a wing to their building.
Mattar and the IDA’s Allen, probing for cracks in the rule, claim that the company’s expansion is for “back office” operations. Nice try, but answering phones and filing paperwork are daily duties at any law firm.
Longtime Buffalo lawyer Bill Collins, unlike Mattar, lacks a brain-sticking slogan. But 20 years ago, he resurrected a battered 1890s building for reuse by his law firm, then hired more people. He did it all – gasp – without a dollar of taxpayer help.
“It strikes me as odd that a firm that spends millions of dollars in advertising is asking taxpayers to fund their growth,” said Collins, who was joined Thursday by Ryan and County Executive Mark Poloncarz at a news conference in Collins’ office. “I think it’s wrong. The playing field has to remain level.”
Part of the problem is these IDAs are self-funding. Allen and several staffers are paid with a cut of every deal – and there have been a lot of them. According to public records, Allen in 2012 made $177,408 – nearly as much as the governor.
Ryan called the self-funding “a perverse incentive” to do deals – good or bad.
If the IDA wants to have the same level of staff and have a director who makes almost as much as the governor, Ryan says, “they have to do bad deals. This one doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The outrage rates a slogan: Hurt By This Deal? All You Can Do Is Squeal.