Around And About

Reporter, Tony Farina

Lack of Transparency

Examples abound about the lack of transparency when it comes to the accounting of taxpayer dollars and nowhere is the example stronger than in my repeated attempts to find out how much the state is paying a Buffalo law firm to defend a state agency against an unlawful termination lawsuit filed by a Buffalo contractor in the replica canal project.

I filed a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request Dec. 9, 2015, to Empire State Development seeking “a full accounting of invoices from and payments made to the Buffalo law firm of Phillips Lytle in defense of the Canalside lawsuit filed by DiPizio Construction Co.”

So far, I have received a total of six responses to that FOIL request, none of which contained any accounting of public dollars spent in defense of the lawsuit.  The latest response, received May 24, contained the same language as the previous five responses, to wit: “Please be advised that we are still processing the attached FOIL request,” and adding once again that Empire State hopes to have a response soon.

Legal sources advise that the bill may already be over $2 million and counting, but the state won’t give us the numbers.  The lawsuit is continuing and there is no guarantee who will win in the end.

Hamister Project Still a No-Show

State officials and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster pulled out all the stops in 2013 to win approval from a hesitant City Council to award a more than $35 million hotel construction project (heavily taxpayer subsidized) to Buffalo developer Mark Hamister.  So far, despite all the hype and months of broken promises, there is no hotel in sight at 310 Rainbow Blvd.

As of press time this week, city and state officials had nothing to say officially about when or if the hotel–now billed as a Hyatt Place– will ever get built at the prime downtown parcel.  The project has been shrouded in secrecy from the beginning, including the back-room process awarding the contract to the Buffalo developer who reneged on a bid to buy the Buffalo Sabres in 2002 when the state wouldn’t give him enough money to make the deal.

Niagara Falls Council President Andrew Touma said this week he’s willing to wait a little longer for Hamister to start construction even though he is clearly losing patience after all the promises that have not been kept.  You would have thought by now the city and state would admit there are problems with financing and would find a way to get something out of the property this season if the hotel isn’t coming any time soon.  But so far, as the tourist season begins, there is nothing in the way of public reassurances from state and city officials that something is going to happen on the property and it is not going to sit idle for another season with no return for the city.

Poloncarz Wants Strings Attached to ECC Budget

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz doesn’t want language in the ECC budget submitted to his office and to the county legislature that would, In a “whereas” amendment, effectively blame Poloncarz if the college faces a “catastrophic” budget problem if the county does not fulfill its “maintenance of effort” obligations under State Education Law and the college is forced to close one or more of its facilities and/or lay off a significant number of employees.  (Is that the ECC board setting a trap for Poloncarz?)

In his formal response to the ECC budget approved by the trustees, Poloncarz said the “whereas” amendment is not necessary and unfair in lieu of the continuing aid and one-shots from the county that have helped the college stay afloat.  But he knows full well that while he increased the public subsidy slightly last year, it is still well below the level required by counties to community colleges and state aid is also far short of the one-third formula.

Poloncarz is also against the $1 million allocation as approved recently by the legislature as an early retirement incentive, saying he needs to see an “acceptable analysis describing which employees would be eligible to participate in the incentive and showing how the allocation will in fact reduce long term costs at the college and save money.”

The county executive is certainly mindful of the scathing state audit report released earlier this year that found that the college under President Jack Quinn was creating jobs and raising salaries even as enrollment declined and college tuition was increased by $300 each of the last two years with another hike ($138) contained in the new budget.

County lawmakers are expected to approve the ECC budget today (June 2) and it remains to be seen what happens with the Poloncarz suggestions following today’s public hearing (2 p.m.) with all the stakeholders expected to attend

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