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A lesson not learned

   Six years ago, there was talk of building a new downtown convention center and an office tower for Adelphia. I wrote a story that started out like this:

Call it the silver bullet syndrome.

If we build it -- first a convention center, then a subway, then a baseball stadium and finally a hockey arena -- they will come. Investors. Developers. Shoppers. Tourists. Even suburban residents.

But they didn't come.

And still the chant continues.

   Fast forward to this past Sunday, when Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., said this in a News story about the proposed $325 million redevelopment the foot of Main Street in a News story:

"The phrase 'If you build it they will come' was never truer than it is with this plan," he said.

   Please. This may or may not be a good project -- I'm still trying to get a handle on it -- but I do know that "build it and they will come" has been a failed strategy in this town for a long time.

    Buffalo is no Field of Dreams.

    On a related front, Donn Esmonde offers his take on the Canal Side project in a column in today's paper. He's spoken to experts about the proposal and drawn on his considerable knowledge of efforts to redevelop this  stretch of real estate.

Heavily subsidized projects are a crapshoot. Absent the $35 million handout, Bass Pro is not coming. Retail is especially iffy. If Bass Pro's magic is fading -- and no business is recession-proof -- we eventually may be looking at the world's largest Dollar Store, surrounded by parking ramps.

Critics suggest that the strategy is Bass-ackwards and that government (and tax dollars) should simply build roads, parks, sidewalks and sewers, and let business follow. We then, step by step, get the development we deserve. From Hertel Avenue to Chippewa Street, we have seen it happen.

But the step-by-step model takes patience, and the folks running this are in Want It Now mode. I am not a big fan of the heavy-subsidy strategy, which "buys" an end result, then hopes that the crowds follow. But UB's Shibley said the concept may work, given the site's assets -- waterfront, historic attraction, HSBC Arena, office buildings.

Property taxes: Worse than you realize

There are 3,141 counties in the United States.

Of the 20 with the biggest property tax bite, 19 are located in Upstate New York.

Nineteen of twenty. In the freakin' nation.

Niagara County ranks No. 2; Erie County is No. 12.

Rounding out the ranks are most of the remaining counties in Western New York and counties in and around Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Binghamton.

I knew property taxes were bad here. But this bad?

The depressing data comes from a report issued by the Tax Foundation, an outfit out of Washington, D.C., which studied Census data from 2005-2007 for counties with a population over 20,000. They sliced and diced the data different ways. Where Upstate comes out worst is when median property taxes are calculated as a percentage of median property values.

In places with dirt-cheap property taxes, starting with Louisiana, property taxes are well
below 1 percent of property values. As low as one-tenth of one percent. (I'm not sure many of
us would be satisfied with the quality of government services in those places.)

Meanwhile, back in Upstate New York, property taxes equal 2.4 to 3 percent of median property values. I figure it's a result of relatively modest property values and high tax rates.

Here's the "Top 20" list. Only a county in Texas, west of Houston, keeps us from batting 1.000.

Orleans County, NY: 3.05%
Niagara County, NY: 2.90%
Allegany County, NY: 2.87%
Montgomery County, NY: 2.86%
Monroe County, NY: 2.84%
Wayne County, NY: 2.74%
Cortland County, NY: 2.69%
Genesee County, NY: 2.69%
Chautauqua County, NY: 2.67%
Livingston County, NY: 2.61%
Fort Bend County, TX: 2.57%
Erie County, NY: 2.56%
Onondaga County, NY: 2.56%
Seneca County, NY: 2.52%
Oswego County, NY: 2.50%
Wyoming County, NY: 2.49%
Fulton County, NY: 2.47%
Cayuga County, NY: 2.46%
Chemung County, NY: 2.44%
Schenectady County, NY: 2.43%

Not outraged enough?

Here's a link to a spreadsheet with more complete data. Go to the tab entitled "Sorted by % of value."

Read it and weep.

Questions for the Canal Side project

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but the announcement this weekend of a $325 million redevelopment plan for the foot of Main Street poses many questions that need to be answered in the days, weeks and months ahead.

These questions include:

What's the precise mix of public and private funding? What would the public money go towards?

Beyond grants, what other subsidies are potentially involved, such as tax breaks granted under the Empire Zone program and Erie County Industrial Development Agency?

What market research and analysis has been conducted to support the recommendation?

Where will the customers come from? To what degree would they be local residents vs. out-of-towners who would bring new money into our economy?

What's the anticipated mix of chains vs. local businesses?

Would the two hotels included in the plan be subsidized? What would be their impact on downtown's struggling hotel industry? Has this been studied?

What would be the impact of this project on the downtown core, which continues to have problems supporting retail and commercial office space? Has this been studied?

What cost-benefit analysis has been performed? If one has, what does it show?

Will design standards require buildings be constructed to LEED (green) standards?

What experts, if any, in urban design and development were consulted?

How many jobs would be created? How well will they pay?

Will Bass Pro, the lynchpin of this plan, succeed, especially given the economy's foreseeable struggles in the future? What happens if it doesn't?

What parties stand to benefit financially from this undertaking?

Can anything succeed at the foot of Main Street with the Skyway running through the middle of it?

Is this the best and highest use of the public dollars involved?

I plan to delve into these questions and others. What have I overlooked?

We're already subsidizing some automakers

The Senate has rejected, for at least the time being, a $14 billion loan to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. A subsidy watchdog group has calculated that state and local governments have given foreign-owned automobile plants some $3.6 billion in grants, tax breaks and other assorted financial assistance since 1980.

In reality, the number is probably a lot higher, especially when inflation is taken into account, but Good Jobs First compiled the numbers as a way of saying government has long been in the auto-subsidy business.

Do not read this as an endorsement on my part of any auto bailout. I just find the information interesting.

I mean, it's not like the Big Three haven't benefited from all sorts of subsidies as well. Locally there's been big hydropower discounts, state grants, etc.

Two years ago, when I did my Power Failure series, I calculated hyrdopower savings at $7.1 million annually for the GM plant in the Town of Tonawanda and $2.6 million for the Ford plant in Hamburg. Delphi Automotive in Lockport, long a GM property as Harrison Radiator, was saving $7.8 million.

Here's the list complied by Good Jobs First, which includes property and sales tax exemptions, income tax credits, infrastructure aid, land discounts and training grants. The list is drawn from press accounts, which probably overlooked some deals.

  • Volkswagen, Chattanooga, TN, 2008, $577 million
  • Kia, West Point, GA, 2006, $400 million
  • Toyota, Blue Springs, MS, 2007, $300 million
  • Nissan, Canton, MS, 2000, $295 million
  • Hyundai, Montgomery, AL, 2002, $252 million
  • Honda, Lincoln, AL, 1999, $248 million
  • Nissan, Smyrna, TN, 1980, $233 million
  • Nissan, Decherd, TN, 1995, $200 million
  • BMW, Spartanburg, SC, 1992$, $150 million
  • Toyota, Georgetown, KY, 1985, $147 million
  • Honda, Greensburg, IN, 2006, $141 million
  • Toyota, San Antonio, TX, 2003, $133 million
  • Subaru, Lafayette, IN, 1986, $94 million
  • Honda, Marysville OH, 1980, $27 million*
  • Toyota, Princeton, IN, 1995, $30 million
  • Toyota, Huntsville, AL, 2001, $30 million
  • Honda, Anna, OH, 1985, $27 million*
  • Honda, East Liberty, OH, 1987, $27 million*
  • Toyota, Buffalo, WV, 1996, more than $15 million
  • Mercedes-Benz, Vance, AL, 1993, $258 million

I find it interesting that the three richest deals are the most recent, starting with the more than half-billion dollars going to Volkswagen in Chattanooga. That and the Kia deal in Georgia come to nearly $1 billion.

A timely read

I've plugged Gristmill, the environmental blog, in the past, and this is an especially opportune time to check it out, given the pending appointments of Obama's environmental team.

Hard questions on Empire Zone subsidies

The idea behind Empire Zones is to promote investment and job creation in economically distressed areas. Brownfields, abandoned factories, inner-city neighborhoods -- places like that.

City Hall, however, is using the program to help underwrite a new waterfront hotel in the shadow of million dollar condos.

Is this the best use of the program in this, the third poorest city in the nation?

And does the parcel need the help in order to be marketable?

We're talking a 1.4-acre parcel that one of hotel developers who wanted to build on the site was willing to pay $1.2 million. It's near the entrance of Erie Basin Marina, adjacent to the Shanghai Red's restaurant.

Does that sound like a distressed property to you?

This isn't the first time the city has blessed land at the Erie Basin Marina with Empire Zone benefits. In 2006, the Common Council, acting on a request from Mayor Byron Brown, approved Empire Zone designation to a parcel where Carl Paladino is building condos selling for up to $650,000.

That caused a flap when my colleague Phil Fairbanks reported on it last year, but the mayor and Common Council are poised to do the same thing again with this hotel parcel down the street. Unless the property is removed from the Empire Zone, the benefits will flow to whoever builds there, assuming they meet state criteria. The benefits will come to millions, if not tens of millions of dollars, and both developers who submitted proposals to the city said they intended to use what is available to them from the city and Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

A year ago, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, who serves on a state board overseeing Empire Zones, termed the designation of the Paladino property for pricey condos as "a marginal use of the program."

How is the use of the proposed hotel site down the street any better?

Council President David Franczyk said the site's designation as Empire Zone-eligible warrants further review.

"You raise a legitimate policy issue that we should examine," he told me in an interview earlier this week.

Another policy concern: Should the city be using subsidies to promote competition against other subsidized hotels that are struggling. I covered this point in a story and a blog post post earlier this week.

Yet another: Could the city get more bang for its Empire Zone buck in a different area?

The Brown administration is talking up the redevelopment of a brownfield corridor that starts in the Old First Ward and stretches to the Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna.

As I blogged back in May in a post about Brian Reilly, the city's economic development commissioner:

He's trying to market brownfields in South Buffalo, including the old Republic Steel site, as a renewable energy and technology corridor. Also working with Lackawanna to include the Bethlehem Steel site. Selling points: lots of land and lake and highway access. And, I found out, home to a huge 42-inch water main capable of pumping as much water in a day as the rest of the city consumes.

However, little of that corridor in Buffalo is designated as an Empire Zone and that won't change until the city frees up some real estate that now carries the designation.

Responding to disinformation

A Buffalo cop is leveling some pretty serious accusations against this newspaper in comments he's recently posted this week. I feel the need to set the record straight.

Let's begin with the source of the allegations, Detective Mark Lauber. Most of you don't know him. We reporters at The Buffalo News know him well.

Some know Lauber from covering the grand jury investigation of his 1991 shooting of a black teenager, a death that caught the attention of the NAACP. Other reporters know him from covering his 1998 suspension, along with seven other officers, involving the use of police computers to send and/or receive e-mails containing ethnic slurs. To others, he's the guy who has confronted them in the paper's office at Police HQ about stories they have written.

I didn't have the pleasure of Detective Lauber's acquaintance until this August, after I wrote a story about how the police handled a home invasion in University Heights, and what it said about department practices. The day the story ran, Lauber sent me a couple of nasty e-mails, missives with subject lines like "hack." I often get unpleasant e-mails, so it's no big deal. But I found it curious that Lauber was spending time sending nasty-grams the very day he had been assigned to investigate the double murder of a couple on Sanders Road. He's got two dead people on his hands and he's worried about what I wrote about a burglary?

I spoke to Lauber on the phone Wednesday. He denies he's been nasty to reporters, merely trying to set the record straight on stories he took factual issue with. That his suspension involved not reporting inappropriate e-mails he received. That's he's won numerous awards for his work in the line of duty. And that he's a hardworking cop.

"The citizens of the City of Buffalo get 100 percent effort from me every time I come into work," he said.

He's certainly a well paid cop. Made $118,024 last year, nearly half of it for working overtime and making court appearances.

As for his public comments responding to the paper's insistence that the press have access to reasonably complete crime records, Lauber he said he's just trying to hold the paper accountable like we are the department.

Fair enough, in theory.

What's he been saying?

Reporters are lazy, focus on the city to the exclusion of the suburbs, make it tough for cops to do their job and want to invade the privacy of crime victims.

Let me address his comments, and, in the process, provide insight into how things really work.

The News stations reporters in Police HQ because that's where the action is. A disproportionate share of crime in our circulation area occurs in the City of Buffalo. That's why we maintain a presence in Buffalo as opposed to, say, East Aurora. I'm pretty sure our readers wouldn't find "lost dog" reports of much interest.

Not that the suburbs get ignored. I'll tell you my routine when I work the police beat and it's typical of what my colleagues do. In addition to monitoring crime and arrest reports in the city, I call 33 police agencies in Western New York, including all the suburban departments, plus a couple of fire departments and the medical examiner's office. Our reporters in Niagara County do likewise in their neck of the woods.

Our police reporters also monitor the police scanner and often go to crime scenes. Just last week, on my way home from work, I came across a crime scene on Main Street that turned out to be where a suspected drunk drinker allegedly ran over a mother and her young son. I called our reporter covering the night police shift to tell him about it. He'd already been there, talked to witnesses and was writing the story. Our regular police reporters are forever going out to crime scenes.

Written police reports are of growing importance to reporters because showing up at a crime scene doesn't mean we'll get any information, as rank-and-file officers are under orders not to talk to us. I remember going to the scene of the double murder on Sanders Road in August and approaching an officer outside the house. She politely told me that she couldn't talk. Neither could the detectives inside -- including, as it turns out, one Mark Lauber. At least I think he was inside -- or perhaps he was back at HQ writing e-mails.

As for the paper's insistence to information that is a matter of public record, all I can say is this is the U.S. of A., not, say, Burma.

Yes, we want the addresses of crime scenes and information that can help us identify crime victims and those arrested. We need it to fact-check police reports for accuracy. For example, if we see a name on a report of "John Smhit," we suspect it's really "Smith." If we have an address and/or a date of birth, we can check it against other records. We're trying to publish correct information.

We usually don't identify crime victims unless it's a particularly serious crime, often involving injuries. Yesterday, I looked at our police briefs over the past four days. We published a dozen based on what we culled from Buffalo police records. Here's what I learned from that snapshot.

We identified only one of the victims by name, and he was a guy shot dead a year ago. We published ages only twice -- the dead guy and the unnamed assault victim who is hospitalized. We didn't publish the exact address of a single crime victim. In seven of the 12 briefs, we did list the street they live on, but not their house number. We figure readers want to know if something happened in their neighborhood, and naming the street is the way to do that.

That's the way it is. The way it really is.

Mayor says he wants more complete crime reports

Mayor Byron Brown has once again pledged to make more complete crime records available to the press.

I know, you've read this before. This is actually round three of the drama.

He first pledged in August to restore access his police brass had restricted in a snit over Buffalo News crime coverage. He renewed that commitment in October, when the department was dragging its feet. I reported Tuesday that, after a period of improvement, the department was again backsliding, leaving reporters with access to less information than has historically been the norm, and what we consider necessary to provide accurate coverage.

Peter Cutler, the mayor's spokesman, said he filled Brown in Tuesday morning based on what I had reported in my blog and that the boss was not happy.

Cutler said the mayor "expressed his concern that some information may not be as readily available as he might expect.

"Mayor Brown remains committed to the agreement reached earlier with The Buffalo News regarding access to the information necessary to provide accurate reporting on crime in the city," Cutler said.

Cutler said the mayor planned on sending a letter Tuesday to Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and his deputies instructing them to provide incident and arrest reports that are reasonably complete.

Let me make it easy for Gipson and company.

Your report technicians, some of whom use seniority to rake in overtime that pumps up their salaries to as much as $90,000, should include the addresses and date of birth of defendants when inputting felony arrests. It's in the paperwork they work from, so it shouldn't be difficult.

Likewise, include the address and DOB of crime victims, along with the location of the crime scene. It's a matter of public record. We reporters aren't necessarily going to publish the information, but we need it for fact-checking. And sometimes it's newsworthy. Most officers and detectives include the information in the written reports they submit that the RTs work from.

I also spoke Tuesday with Ellicott Common Council Member Brian Davis, who is chairman of the Police Oversight Committee.

"I would assume that all the information is there," he said. "If it's not, its something we will look at in the Police Oversight Committee."

I'll admit to feeling a bit for Brown on this chapter. I participated in a meeting in October in which he and News Editor Margaret Sullivan tried to put this issue to bed. I got the distinct impression he wanted this issue to go away - it does nothing but hurt him politically. I don't think the latest episode is of his doing.

What's the problem? I don't know. Either there are elements of the police brass who want to continue jousting with the press over access to information or they are tolerating sloppy work by their clerks.

Regardless, the public, which depends largely on the press for crime coverage, deserves better.

So do the cops who sometimes work with these reports in trying to solve crime. Imagine being a detective calling up a report in anticipation of contacting a crime victim only to find out all you've got to work with is a name. No street address, no city. Just a name. Like, maybe, Smith. Hardly makes it easy for a cop to do his job.

 

Police again playing hide & seek with crime records

Buffalo police have yet to make good on Mayor Byron Brown's pledge to restore all the information they stripped out of felony crime and arrest reports earlier this year.

I found that out working the police beat Saturday night. In reading the reports, I was struck at how incomplete many of them were. More so than they have been in the past couple of months.

I wound up doing a tally of the reports filed Friday and Saturday, through about 9:30 p.m.

There were 14 arrest reports filed; only three of them included both the addresses and DOBs (date of birth) of those arrested. Eight of the 14 included neither.

That's a problem when you're trying to write a story. Sometimes the readers want to know where the bad guys live.

Of the 44 felony crime incident reports, none had what I consider to be complete information.

Brown_and_police_brassPolice, true to the mayor's word, have again included the location of the crime. But it gets sketchy after that.

Eighteen of the 44 reports did not list the address of the crime victims and none of the reports included their date of birth. We usually don't include the specific address or age of crime victims, but often the information is relevant, especially as we fact-check the reports for accuracy.

And sometimes the info is newsworthy.

Was the rape victim 40, or 14, or 84? We'd probably want to report the age, but obviously not the name, if the victim was young or old.

Were the burglary victims elderly people? That might be noteworthy if we're talking a string of home invasions.

I checked with a couple of our police reporters who told me the problem started to get worse again a couple of weeks ago. I know the records were generally more complete the last time I worked the police beat about three weeks ago.

What's going on?

Mike DeGeorge, spokesman for the department, denied any shenanigans.

"There is no policy decision to withhold anything," he said.

On one hand, he said, "all pertinent information is supposed to be included in the reports."

But he cautioned "these are initial reports, not official reports. There is always going to be a certain amount of incompleteness."

A certain amount of incompleteness, I can live with. But not a single DOB for 44 crime victims, or missing address on more than one-third of them?

I have a hard time believing the police officers who compile the original reports aren't getting the basics, such as the addresses and DOBs of victims. I'm no cop, but I've got to believe that is Police 101 kind of work.

As for arrest reports, well, it's all in the paperwork the clerks who enter the reports work from.

To quote Yogi Berra, this is "deja vu all over again."

You may remember the brouhaha August 5 when I first reported the department's efforts to withhold information to the press and public. Basic information that was usually contained in crime reports - including the address of the crime scene and the addresses and ages/DOB of the perpetrators and victims - was no longer being routinely entered into reports made available to the press through a computer terminal in police HQ.

Police brass, in a snit over some of our reporting, told staff to no longer include the information in the reports they prepared.

Brown, facing a firestorm of public criticism, relented several days after the story broke and promised Buffalo News Editor Margaret Sullivan the police department would restore the information. (The mayor is pictured above with Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and Deputy Commissioner Daniel Derenda.)

The department was slow to comply, however, and it wasn't until a face-to-face meeting in October between Sullivan and Brown - along with me and Peter Cutler, the mayor's press aide - that reports began to include all the information they used it. Not that they were always complete, but close enough. We're not looking for perfection, just a good-faith effort.

I filed a Freedom of Information request with the police department this morning in an effort to obtain any written communication sent to the report technicians who enter the reports. We'll see what that shows. Or how long the police department takes to respond.

My hunch is that police brass told the report technicians to withhold DOBs and there's a lot of inconsistency among the RTs in terms of what they enter. Quality control? You've got to be kidding me.

What this means to you, readers, is that the police are making it difficult to report when home invasions victimize old people or rapists attack young girls. Among other crimes and misdemeanors.

Self-defeating hotel subsidies

It's like throwing water on a drowning man.

As I report in today's Buffalo News, the city has subsidized the construction of five downtown hotels since the 1980s, four of which have struggled. (The other hasn't been in business long enough to run into trouble.)

Hyatt_hotelSome of the hotels are still losing money, starting with the Hyatt Regency, pictured at left, which has been a financial sinkhole since it opened 24 years ago. Two other downtown hotels sold this year for less money than their owners had sunk into them.

Downtown's hotel market is searching for stability. So, naturally, the pols and bureaucrats are taking steps that will further destabilize it.

Three new projects are in various stages of planning, with one under construction. A proposal for yet another project was floated in Sunday's paper.

It would be one thing if the projects were being funded by investors on their own dime, but this being Buffalo, that's not the case. No, they're all banking on subsidies.

Case in point is the Embassy Suites under construction as part of the rehab of the former Dulski federal office building on Delaware Avenue. The state kicked in a $7 million grant and there's a $19.2 million tax break package from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. Next up are more tax breaks through the state Empire Zone program. When it's all said and done, project is probably going to enjoy benefits north of $30 million.

Assign half those benefits to the hotel, which will occupy seven of 15 floors, and you're talking subsidies of at least $100,000 per room. By contrast, a quarter century of subsidies for the Hyatt work out to about $70,000 a room.

The operators of downtown's two largest hotels, the Hyatt and Adam's Mark, are unhappy with the prospect of more competition for what is now an insufficient pool of customers.

Hart_davidDavid Hart, left, owner of the downtown Holiday Inn, is really ticked off. Hart is a rare breed in Buffalo - a genuine capitalist - who hasn't taken subsidies to buy or acquire any of his five hotels in Western New York.

"If the market is really there, you don't need public assistance. And if it's not there, don't build," he declared in my story in today's paper. "All you do is hurt the hotels already in the market, and that's what's been happening for 20 years."

Unfortunately, this is what passes for economic development in Western New York. Don't base public investments on rigorous analysis or strategic goals. Nope, subsidize whatever comes along and hope it works.

What's particularly troubling is that Mayor Byron Brown is basing his push for more subsidized hotels in the belief the convention/tourism industry needs them.

"There has been very strong interest and, with some of the convention opportunities the city has, we need more hotel rooms in downtown Buffalo," the mayor said at last month's meeting of the ECIDA.

That notion is rejected by a guy who ought to know, Richard Geiger, president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We have a sufficient number of rooms in the downtown core," he said.

Better, Geiger said, to work on shoring up the existing hotels and boosting demand by improving attractions and doing more to market the region.

Of course, the pols have cut funding to Geiger's shop. Go figure.

So, the way this is unfolding, tax dollars and tax breaks first used to overbuild the hotel market are now being used to further overbuild the market.

What City Hall, the ECIDA and Empire State Development Corp. are doing is using new public investment to undermine the old public investment.

This is smart public policy?

(In the next day or two I'll examine the city's use of Empire Zone benefits to subsidize the planned construction of a hotel in the Erie Basin Marina. Some of the local blogs are buzzing over another element of the story. Start by going here.)

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