State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Monday that the state’s multimillion dollar Empire Zone program isn’t monitored closely enough to determine whether it’s effective at retaining and attracting jobs.
The Democrat said it’s time for the state to rethink the program, which gives millions of dollars in tax breaks to companies.
The Empire Zone program was also a topic Monday at a state budget hearing on economic development programs.
Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said Empire Zones have failed to turn around the upstate economy. He proposed a new approach, including helping businesses pay employees higher, union-level wages to create an economic engine that would help communities thrive.
“If these programs were for poor people it would have been shot down years ago,” Brodsky said.
He noted the $30 million bailout of dairy farmers in 2007 was a success because it sent checks directly to 5,100 farmers hurt by falling prices. He said the farmers used that money in their communities, creating a positive ripple effect in the economy.
Spitzer economic development chiefs Dan Gundersen and Patrick Foye told legislators at the hearing that the program is being changed. They said aid is now being more clearly targeted to need in each region.
As a candidate, Spitzer had been critical of Empire Zones under the Pataki administration, saying they were long used to help political cronies and failed to provide the jobs that were promised.
DiNapoli, a Democrat, found that officials failed to determine if job creation claims in Empire Zones were accurate. His report was based on reviews of Empire Zones in municipalities including Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Tonawanda and Yonkers and in Broome County.
A 2004 comptroller’s office report found similar concerns in those areas.
“New York should take another look at the Empire Zone program,” DiNapoli said. “We need to know if we’re getting a bang for the taxpayers’ buck. If officials representing local zones can’t demonstrate that the program is working, and if local governments and taxpayers are not benefiting from a program that’s supposed to generate economic development and create jobs, it calls into question the value of the program.”
After years of criticism, Monday’s comments could signal the beginning of an overhaul of the system that was at the core of economic development efforts by Pataki and the Legislature.
Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno of Rensselaer County agreed he could support some changes in Empire Zones to make sure the jobs that are promised are realized. But he said there’s no need to scrap the program.
“I think they have been effective,” Bruno said.