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What you need to know for 01/21/2017

Transparency lacking in how Metroplex selects businesses for tax breaks

Transparency lacking in how Metroplex selects businesses for tax breaks

Neither Metroplex nor the three sister authorities it manages give very much information to the publ

Metroplex and the three other Schenectady public authorities it manages together dole out millions of public dollars every year to a host of local businesses though grants, PILOTs ( reduced property and school taxes for the selected businesses), sales tax exemptions, and mortgage recording tax waivers.

Neither Metroplex nor the three sister authorities it manages give very much information to the public on how they go about selecting the businesses to which they award these benefits. The public is just as much in the dark on the impact of this public money on “jobs created” or “job retained,” even though these are the measures typically touted in the newspaper stories announcing one or another new grant or award for some local business.

In light of this significant lack of real information, readers may well be surprised to learn that the Metroplex Law, in fact, mandates quite specific information be given to the county legislature by the chairman of Metroplex, Ray Gillen, in an annual report.

This annual written and oral report to the county legislature is to describe “… in detail the projects undertaken, the monies expended…,” as well as the administrative activities of Metroplex. Gillen is also to answer any questions of the legislators. Gillen’s 2013 annual report to the legislature is available on the Metroplex website. Readers will find it is essentially a photo slide show of different projects. The photos, while visually engaging, fall woefully short of the law’s mandates.

It is likely our county legislators now know no more than the general public about how Metroplex makes decisions to award public money or how Metroplex staff measure and monitor the impact of the money they award to local businesses.

The Metroplex Law establishes an 11-member Board of Directors appointed by majority vote of the county legislature. Six of the 11 board members are to be nominated by the city of Schenectady (2) and the towns (4). The Metroplex Law requires these six city/town board members to also make annual written and oral reports to their respective municipality similar to the report required of Gillen.

The law states these written and oral reports are to be made at a time designated by each town board or, for the city, by the City Council. These six board members, and the city and towns they represent, are either unaware of these Metroplex Law requirements or have simply chosen to ignore them, since I believe no reports have ever been made. The public again is left in the dark.

At the July 9 monthly meeting of the Metroplex Board of Directors, I asked that the names of the six board members required to make annual reports to the city and towns be listed on the Metroplex website. Chairman Gillen opposed this request and it was not put to a vote of the board at that meeting. The Metroplex Board members required to make written and oral reports to their municipalities are: City of Schenectady — Sharon Jordan and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas; Niskayuna — Bill Chapman; Glenville — Ed Capovani; Duanesburg /Princetown — Bob Wall; Rotterdam — John Mallozzi.

Readers might expect county legislators to insist that these six board members, whom they voted to appoint, meet these reporting responsibilities. However, my earlier efforts to have legislators provide oversight of Metroplex with feedback to the public have been fruitless.

In late April, the chairman of the county legislature, Anthony Jasenski Sr., conducted informational meetings on county government for city and town residents.

Residents attending these meeting were encouraged to raise any questions they might have about county government. At his Niskayuna town meeting, I submitted a series of written questions to Chairman Jasenski about Metroplex funding, the procedures it uses to award money to local businesses, and asked how Metroplex goes about measuring and verifying the impact of the public funds they award to local businesses. Also included in my questions were two arising from a Gazette story that appeared at the end of 2013.

It reported that the PILOTs (tax reductions that local businesses are given by Metroplex and the other authorities it manages) resulted in $14 million in taxes. I asked how much more these businesses would have paid in taxes without these PILOT tax breaks. I also noted the county’s current budget showed a little over $1 million in PILOT payments to the county in 2013 and projected a little less than $2.5 million for 2014. I asked how these amounts reconciled with the $14 million reported by Gillen in the Gazette story.

Since April, Mr. Jasenski has neither acknowledged nor replied to any of these questions.

It is therefore reasonable to conclude there is little likelihood these annual reports to the city and towns will be made by the six board members cited without strong insistence by county residents or the city and town governments.

Elmer Bertsch lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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