The little rebellion at the Ulster County IDA

“… The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”
– From a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, February 22, 1787

Five recently appointed members of the seven-member Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) board spent five hours and 20 minutes Wednesday, July 25 in an extended training session on the sixth floor of the county office building in Kingston. If the new members learned anything, it was that there was a lot to learn. Any ideas they might have had that a quick adoption of reform policies would effectively end “tax giveaways” to unworthy recipients fell by the wayside. They would need to learn the ropes — particularly the complex state regulations under which IDAs operate — first.

Randall Leverette, one of two holdovers from the previous board (the other, James Malcolm, didn’t attend), chairs the agency and chaired the session. A half dozen county employees or IDA attorneys were in attendance. The IDA rookies, a quintet with varied levels of experience, included Paul Andreassen of Saugerties, Mike Ham and Dan Savona of Kingston, Rick Jones of Kerhonkson, and Faye Storms of Shandaken. 

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The only observers other than a reporter were three county legislators — majority leader Jim Maloney, minority leader Hector Rodriguez and legislator Lynn Archer, all of whom had played significant roles in the recent membership appointments at the UCIDA (the county legislature makes the appointments). None of the three stayed in the room listening for more than half an hour.

In an aside during a break in the session, Leverette said he didn’t like the use of the word “purge” to describe the membership change in the IDA. Two members had resigned, and another didn’t reapply because he couldn’t attend regularly. Two others, chairman John Morrow and member John Livermore, weren’t reappointed. 

Leverette expressed confidence in his new colleagues. “This new board, while unfamiliar with all the nuances of the IDA, has demonstrated an intellectual curiosity and desire to master the task ahead of us as we work for the betterment of Ulster County,” he said.

Partisan politics played a major role in the appointment process. Independent freshman legislator Joe Maloney, who started 2018 as a member of the GOP legislative caucus and recently joined the Democratic caucus instead, has been particularly fierce in his determination to set a new course for the IDA. Reinforced by Joe Maloney, the legislature Democrats played a dominant role in the selection of the new members. 

How will the new appointments affect IDA policy? The answer to that question will play out over time. The training session was an opportunity for the members of the newly constituted board to cast a critical eye on the agency and to begin to figure out their policy role.

Toward the end of the marathon training session July 25, Leverette said earlier IDA board involvement in the agency’s application review process had been suggested to him. That option had in fact been brought up at IDA meetings for longer than a year. Leverette thought the practice of staff bringing a completed application before the board for tentative approval at an initial meeting, a subsequent immediate scheduling of a public hearing in the affected municipality, and then a final board vote at the next IDA meeting was too hurried. “I didn’t feel that was adequate,” he said. “There was not enough discussion.” The new members assented. 

According to agency staffer and county executive department head Suzanne Holt, the local IDA staff is currently expecting an application from a housing developer. Leverette appointed members Rick Jones, Mike Ham and Daniel Savona as an ad-hoc IDA project subcommittee to meet with Holt and Evelyn Heinbach of the IDA executive staff to discuss this project prior to its presentation to the full board.

For the agency, this run-through will be a trial balloon. “If this works, we’ll do it,” said Leverette. Membership on the project committee would be rotated.

Unlike many upstate IDAs, the Ulster agency has developed robust uniform tax exemption procedures (UTEP), specifying a three-tiered point system to determine the level of payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (Pilot) benefits the agency authorizes to induce projects. IDA rules require consent from the affected taxing jurisdictions for deviations from these schedules.  

Though considerable, public restiveness about the local IDA is nothing compared to what’s been happening in Albany. Decades of criticism have led to the state government tightening up on local public authorities in general and local IDAs in particular. Legislation to assist public authorities in improving their management practices and procedures has led to increased policy guidance from the state Authorities Budget Office (ABO). 

Local IDAs often find ABO strictures unnecessarily adversary in character. A May 25 ABO volley reviewing required public information on the Ulster IDA website, for instance, found relatively little to complain about. But there was little time for self-congratulation. The ABO gave the IDA until June 26 to send Albany “a written confirmation that you have fully addressed these concerns.”

It wasn’t surprising that almost two-thirds of the long training session was devoted to regulatory compliance. The IDA’s veteran attorney, A. Joseph Scott III, managing partner of law firm Hodgson Russ’s Albany office, led the new board members through the thicket of relevant state legislation.

Applicants for IDA inducements promise their paperwork is “true and correct,” said Joe Scott. Annual state letters that go out about promised job levels are now verified. “If you’re lying to the state, you’re in trouble,” added Scott. “You can count people.” Agency benefits are subject to “clawback,” the recovery of money already disbursed. 

Five hours and 20 minutes wasn’t a sufficiently long time for the new members to get to discuss Ulster County’s UTEP schedules. That might happen later, as might the discussion of other significant policy issues relating to economic development in Ulster County. 

At the very beginning of the session, Suzanne Holt referred to the 2007 planning document Ulster Tomorrow as “still our guiding framework,” the “front door” for economic development in Ulster County. Might the restiveness occasioned by the recent turnover of the IDA board indicate the need to consider a rethink of this now-venerable guiding framework?

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