Standing up for transparency with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency in its extension of tax exemptions for the Library Place downtown redevelopment project:
This writer, Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch, (speaking as a member of the public) addressing the Tompkins County Legislature:
January 18, 2022
Six days ago, I attended, via YouTube, a meeting of a Tompkins County administrative agency, a Board on which two of our County Legislators attended as members. As at least one of them knows, I harbor strong disagreement with how it conducted its business that day. Unilaterally, and without notice, an agenda item was expanded to include a much more controversial decision. A multi-Million Dollar PILOT abatement for a financially-fragile, long-delayed downtown apartment project was extended. I would like to have addressed the matter. Maybe others would have, too. Yet we found no opportunity to do so. The agency blindsided us.
I’d like to believe that day’s wandering away from customary procedure was neither deliberate nor sinister, but rather systemic. Those in charge just never thought about us, the taxpaying, skeptical public. But as we’ve learned in other contexts, systemic ills, no matter how inadvertent, demand correction. No, the law did not require a Public Hearing. But democratic due process did dictate the agency provide the public an opportunity to speak.
Your Lansing legislator, Mike Sigler put it best: “Listen, the residents are mad,” Sigler relaying neighborhood frustration concerning the project’s “unkempt” appearance and the developer’s protracted foot-dragging. Thanks, Mike, for standing up for us. I wish all Board members and staff had done so. But instead, at least one member sought to excuse the developer despite his broken promises. Yes, this agency has a problem.
Others, too, remain angry. Like me and my colleagues on the Enfield Town Board, who last year found little support when we sought from the agency greater compensation for a new solar farm in Enfield. The City of Ithaca has secured a seat on the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency. Why can’t we, the rural towns?
There’s little I can do tonight to affect that now-extended Library Place PILOT. But I can do this. Tonight I propose your Legislature revisit Resolution 9855 of February 2021—withdrawn in committee a year ago— and request New York State expand the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency Board from seven members to nine; with the understanding that this Legislature will appoint a representative from the outlying municipalities, the rural towns and villages, to fill one of the new positions; with the second seat reserved for school district representation, with all districts—city and central schools— eligible to nominate, collectively, that member.
We need a voice. I need a voice. Most importantly, TCIDA must learn it serves every one of us, not just the biggest in rental realty. Please don’t ignore our voices any longer, like some did last week.
Later, under his own Privilege of the Floor, County legislator Rich John addressed my comments, stating in part:
“I am the Chair of the Industrial Development Agency. And a speaker questioned a decision we made at our last meeting regarding the Library Place project. A request came to the IDA, and my recollection—I don’t have the agenda in front of me—but that it was on our regular order of business. So it was on the agenda. It was publicly stated that, you know, in advance of the meeting that we would be talking about that. So I’m not entirely clear what the concern is that we did something inappropriate.
“The request was for an extension of the timetable for application of the tax abatement. And what a developer typically asks for is that the abatement apply as soon as the construction is finished and the full value of the project is realized. When a project is delayed, you can run into a situation where the first year or so of the abatement, there’s no improvement completed, and the Assessment Department has not assigned it any new value to the property. So effectively you dramatically change the nature of the incentive that was applied. What we typically do is we amend the timetable for application of the abatement basically to correspond to the deal we agreed to make at the beginning of the project….
“You know, this has been an imposition on the neighbors, and certainly for everybody who has to drive by and see a half-completed project. But it does look like it’s going forward. And what the IDA did was extend the benefit that had been agreed upon originally. We didn’t really do anything else. We’ve done this on many occasions before. So I don’t see this as a particularly controversial step. But perhaps I’m missing something.”
The next day, in a private email to County Legislators Rich John and Mike Sigler, both members of the TCIDA, I explained the facts; specifically that the Library Place PILOT extension was not on the agency’s agenda that day. But my message added the following with reference to my comments the night before:
“I sought to be as constructive as I could. I sought to build something positive out of a situation that provoked my anger greatly when it occurred. Rather than vent about a procedural slight to open democracy, I reflected during the past week on both the January 12th incident and earlier events and advanced last night an initiative that I believe would benefit outlying municipalities, their governing Boards, and Tompkins County’s component school districts. Municipalities and school districts both stand as intended beneficiaries of TCIDA PILOT abatements, but their governing boards currently may exercise little, if any, voice in the IDA’s decision-making process. I fear that my good idea of the evening got lost in the fog of subsequent discussion.
“As I made clear in my prepared remarks concerning January 12th, “I’d like to believe that day’s wandering away from customary procedure was neither deliberate nor sinister, but rather systemic.” Your own words later during last night’s meeting confirmed my assessment.”
Legislator John, in his reply, later acknowledged that I was correct and he mistaken. The Library Place PILOT extension had not been on that day’s TCIDA agenda. The legislator also invited me to advance my idea of expanding the TCIDA’s membership, if I so choose.
You can read of the meeting that prompted my comments filed in the January 2022 Reporting Archives.