War and peace

Park-Point-HZTFaced with a modest barrage of opposition from New Paltz officials and residents, the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (UCIDA) seems prepared to adopt a policy stipulating that dormitory and senior housing projects in the county secure local-government agreement before IDA financial benefits can be extended to them. Such a measure might to some degree ameliorate the hostility between the IDA and local government in Ulster County.

The agency is also likely to adjust its requirements for the use of regional labor and establish a new floor for wages paid during the construction phase of IDA-backed projects. Finally, it has made clear that it regarded itself as being already attuned to state policies in regard to “clawbacks” of IDA benefits from projects that don’t deliver what they have promised.

The UCIDA governance committee discussed these changes at a June 2 meeting attended by a majority of the agency’s members. These proposals were not fully aired at the full agency board meeting June 8, however. Further debate is possible if and when the revised policies do emerge for scrutiny and adoption.

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IDAs in New York counties have been criticized by both the state, the government level above them, and local governments, the level below them, for a variety of reasons. For more than a decade, they’ve been accused of extending benefits to applicants who don’t deserve them, not monitoring whether the recipients of support create the jobs they’ve promised, and in general for undermining home rule. With upstate New York continuing to suffer from prolonged economic stagnation, the IDAs have become the convenient scapegoat, whether or not it is within their power to change the situation, for their critics.

The proposal first floated in 2010 for Park Point, a 732-bed, $60-million dormitory project next to the SUNY-New Paltz campus, caused a long and bitter battle. The developer, Rochester-based Wilmorite, the New Paltz college foundation, college officials and the IDA were on one side. Much of the rest of New Paltz, including its town government, were on the other. The IDA, which provides tax inducements most commonly for industrial and commercial projects, had created Category 5, making dormitory housing and senior housing projects eligible for agency support of a 25-year payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (Pilot) schedule. As with other classes of eligible projects, the IDA reserved decision on the tax benefits for itself. “The agency shall determine the fixed amount by considering the cost of the project and the impact the project has on the local community,” its Uniform Tax Exemption Policy (UTEP) stated. “…The agency may take into account information provided by the applicant, the local municipalities and school districts…,” and so on. The UTEP defined dormitory housing as “housing facilities designed and occupied by students attending higher education.”

The town’s planning board, lead agency for the project’s environmental review, had vowed to deny the Wilmorite application if it included a Pilot. It did.

What followed was predictable. In April 2014, the IDA unanimously granted the developer a 25-year Pilot. IDA member Steve Perfit said that a silent majority in the town favored the deal. “Without SUNY New Paltz, there would be no New Paltz,” he famously said.

The town government responded. “They have a Pilot, but they don’t have a project,” town supervisor Susan Zimet said. “The next step is the lawyers.”

A year later, state Supreme Court judge Michael Melkonian on March 17, 2015 decided in New Paltz’s favor, upholding the planning board’s conclusion that the revenues coming to the town and school district under the Pilot were insufficient to maintain local services. “We understand that SUNY believes that they need more housing and we are not against the college growing in any means whatsoever. SUNY New Paltz is critically important to the community,” said Zimet at the time. “However, it is not fair to do it on the backs of the taxpayers and the people who live in the community.”

The UCIDA has recently been reviewing its policies, procedures and application form.

In Ulster, much attention has been paid, as it has been in other counties, to the pay for construction workers at IDA-backed projects. The regional construction unions, one of which veteran IDA member Jim Malcolm works for, are concerned about the low wages itinerant non-local construction workers are paid. The local unions don’t have the clout to get the level of prevailing wages governmental projects bring, but they have been successful in getting more local labor hired at better pay. The UCIDA is discussing adjustments in its labor policies. Malcolm wants to make sure additional jobs created because of projects “the multiplier”) are taken into consideration. A “living wage” of 150 percent of minimum wage as a pay floor or perhaps 75 percent of prevailing wage were discussed by the UCIDA.

Unlike many other county IDAs, the Ulster IDA applies a points-based matrix system to calculate the eligibility of projects for support. Now it’s reviewing these policies. The matrix will come first. The points calculator will be based on the matrix.

These tools are being updated with an eye for additional detail. Inevitably, the agency’s application is getting longer. A redline version of proposed revisions to the standard IDA application is presently on the agency’s website.

At its June meeting, the agency members tossed around increases and decreases in its decision-making system for eligible projects. It was an interesting discussion. How many points should be awarded for creating or retaining jobs? How many points for ensuring environmental sustainability, removing brownfields, using alternate energy sources, locating projects near bus stops, and/or building business parks?

When all is said and done, the biggest headache the IDA has been facing is the rift caused by Category 5. It has been controversial. It was by far the item most often mentioned at the recent IDA public hearing at SUNY Ulster, and in the correspondence stemming from it.

Chairman Mike Horodyski, who had unwaveringly supported the Wilmorite application, proposed his solution at the IDA governance meeting: Strike only a deal that works for everybody. Make Category 5 and Category 5 alone subject to local approval. Create an automatic deviation that requires local approval for projects in Category 5.

Under Horodyski’s proposal, the approval of the local jurisdiction, the school board and the county legislature would be required for dormitory and senior projects.

Though no committee vote was taken on Horodyski’s suggestion, no overt dissent was voiced by other board members.

According to the UCIDA schedule, the maximum exemption for any other types of projects is 15 years. Member Floyd Lattin wanted the term of the IDA tax abatement for Category 5 cut back to 20 years from 25.

Would the proposed changes soothe the still-ruffled feathers of the IDA and of the local governments? It’s hard to say. Time will tell.

At the IDA committee meeting, governance chairman John Morrow was still fuming about New Paltz town government’s calculation of police services in its objections to Park Point. “The police thing is all bullshit,” he said. “They don’t have to call the New Paltz police. It’s a big, fat lie, and no one’s calling them on it.”

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