Before the Schenectady County Legislature on Sunday signs off on a state bill to extend the borrowing authority of the Metroplex Development Authority by 33 percent, it should gain assurances from the agency that it will do more in the coming year to demonstrate that the taxpayers' investment is paying dividends.
Metroplex is seeking to raise its bonding authority from the current $75 million to $100 million and to have its authority to use a portion of county sales tax to fund its efforts extended by five years.
We've got no quarrel with giving the authority greater ability to invest in the community. All one needs to do is look at how much downtown Schenectady and some of the surrounding areas have been improved over the last 17 years, thanks in no small part to loans and grants extended through Metroplex. And by ensuring the authority will have access to sales tax money through 2038, it will assure investors of the agency's continued financial viability and help keep its borrowing rates low.
But it's difficult to judge a book by its cover, even a very elaborate cover. The authority and its chairman, Ray Gillen, have in the past been reluctant to provide detailed job creation data and other data to justify its investments.
In recent years, Metroplex was openly chastised by the state for providing inaccurate, conflicting or incomplete records to auditors. That's got to change.
If taxpayers are going to loan or give out millions of dollars for economic development, they need to know which investments are working and which aren't, and they need to see the agency make an active effort to recoup bad loans.
Metroplex also needs to do more to address criticism that it focuses its development attention on the central business district, to the detriment of other areas in need of economic development attention. The authority has begun extending its efforts, to Upper Union Street and Albany Street in Schenectady, as well as to industrial areas in Rotterdam and Glenville. Officials need assurances that that will continue.
As to the expansion of the bonding authority, state lawmakers actually made a significant improvement in the original bill pitched by outgoing Sen. Hugh Farley, by creating a hard cap on what the authority can borrow.
Under Farley's original bill, Metroplex could have borrowed more money by paying off earlier loans, as long as it stayed under the new $100million cap. Essentially, then, there would be no limit on what the authority could borrow.
The revised bill, which county legislators will consider on Sunday, puts the borrowing limit at a hard $100 million. If Metroplex wants to go above that limit, it will have to go back to the state and county legislatures for permission. The hard cap is an effective and reasonable control on the authority's power.
Right now, the authority is within about $2 million of its current $75 million cap. If a large project comes along now that seeks more than $2 million, the authority wouldn't be able to fund it, and that could hurt economic development.
So to deny the authority the expansion of its borrowing authority could be detrimental to the improvement of our area's growing economy.
While lawmakers should be hesitant to authorize more spending authority without conditions, Metroplex's past record of success, combined with assurances of more disclosure from the agency, justifies support for this bill.