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Hold off on funding of solar project

Hold off on funding of solar project

Too many questions to answer before releasing $485.5 million in taxpayer money
Hold off on funding of solar project
A solar panel factory built by SolarCity, a power company that is part of the the so-called Buffalo Billion project, in Buffalo, N.Y., May 17, 2016.
Photographer: Brendan Bannon/The New York Times

With a serious questions raised about cost overruns, job creation, the viability of the company involved and an ongoing federal investigation, it seems inconceivable that a government board would authorize nearly half-a-billion state dollars to finish a project without giving all those factors greater consideration and investigation.

But then again, this is New York.

Damn the taxpayers, full speed ahead.

The state Public Authorities Control Board today is scheduled to consider authorizing the release of $485.5 million from the state budget to continue construction of the 1.2 million-square-foot SolarCity solar panel factory in Buffalo.

The Public Authorities Control Board is controlled by the governor and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly. (Raise your hand if this surprises you in any way whatsoever.)

In order for the money to be released, all three representatives have to agree unanimously. Let's hope at least one of them has the taxpayers' interests in mind when they vote.

The SolarCity project, in which the state plans to invest a total of $750 million, is part of the Buffalo Billion economic development initiative, which has come under investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office over possible conflicts of interest and fraud.

In recent weeks, some state lawmakers and good government groups have raised questions about exactly how the $485.5 million would be spent and who would receive it.

There are also questions about whether the state should continue to invest in a project that could be upended by the results of the federal investigation.

And recently, SolarCity significantly scaled down its projections for the creation of factory jobs in the first two years of operation from nearly 1,500 to about 500. The company says the job count will be made up in other areas. Still, this development raises legitimate fears about whether the state's initial decision to invest in the project was worthwhile.

Supporters of releasing the funding immediately say that a significant amount of money has already been invested in the project, and that to cut off funding at this juncture would be detrimental. Halting funding to complete the factory, they say, would leave the city and the state with the shell of a half-completed building for all its effort and expense, no solar panel factory, and no jobs. Why not finish the project and let the chips fall where they may?

But with all the questions in the air about the beneficiaries of the money, and with all the uncertainty over the future of the project should the federal investigation uncover wrongdoing, there's absolutely no justification for the authorities board to authorize the spending (flushing?) of additional money at this time.

The board should first get all the questions about how the money will be spent answered, clarify the job situation to determine exactly how many jobs will be created and what type of jobs they will be, and allow the federal investigation to run its course before spending another dime of taxpayer money on this project.

The money for its completion has already been set aside in the new state budget. It can be held there for a while longer, or carried over to the next budget, while all the issues are being resolved.

If the project is legitimate, there's no threat to its completion other than some delays. In the meantime, New York's taxpayers would be reassured about the viability of the spending.

Have we learned nothing from our state's unethical past?

After the board's vote today, we'll have our answer.

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