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Playing hardball on the waterfront

It's pretty clear that the nobody-elected-them crowd charged with developing Canal Side, a.k.a. Bass Pro,  has no intention of negotiating a community benefits agreement. They've been sounding that drum beat in the public utterances of Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., and through other assorted avenues.

What's got Levy and company all worked up is that the Common Council -- which, I will note, is elected by somebody -- going strongly on record in support of a community benefits agreement. To the point where it has said, "no CBA, no transfer of land to make portions of the project happen."

The coalition supporting the CBA is broad based -- a who's who of the region's progressive community. It reached out to the development corporation a week ago Friday asking for a commencement of negotiations.

A week and a half, Levy and company have yet to respond. Rather, they're doing all their communicating in the media. And the answer is a resounding NO.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course.

Keep in mind that Bass Pro was selected as the anchor tenant without benefit of any competition. Nope, the friendship between Florida neighbors and fishing buddies Bob Rich and Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris was sufficient.

Benderson Properties -- a Buffalo-connected company that made much of its fortune and reputation by building strip malls, not entertainment/historic districts -- was selected as site developer by the ECHDC board, again with no competitive process.

The politically influential law firm of Phillips Lytle was selected to do a lot of the corporation's legal work, and EHCDC is now discussing leasing the old Donovan Building to the firm once millions of public dollars have been spent on rehabbing it.

This is the kind of conduct that gives authorities a bad name.

All this isn't to say Levy and company will get their way. If the Council hangs tough, they will have no choice but to come to the table. Not that it should all fall to the Council.

Rep. Brian Higgins is a player, as well. He was instrumental in establishing the development corporation in his early years in Congress. And last year, he made a deal with the New York Power Authority to accelerate payments to the project and add $50 million to the pot.

In short, Higgins is the agency's sugar daddy. He is in a position to tell Levy and Co. to knock it off and deal with the CBA advocates in good faith.

From where I sit, what Levy is doing involves needless risk for the project. The Partnership for the Public Good, the Coalition for Economic Justice and others pushing the CBA are the very people I'd expect to be flat-out opposed to this deal. Instead, they've proposed a process that would result in their endorsing it.

And the problem is?

I mean, Aaron Bartley and company are known to have organized a picket line or 20. 

PUSH Buffalo protest

I would think the last thing Levy or Higgins wants to see is people starting to organize in opposition to the use of more than $150 million in public funds to create mostly low-wage, part-time jobs. Which is one of several ways reasonable people can view the project.

Maybe Levy and company think the project is so well bankrolled -- with tax dollars, of course -- and deep enough into the public review process that they can afford to thumb their nose at CBA supporters or pick off enough Council members to get what they want.

Perhaps they are right. And perhaps they're not. I just do not understand why they're running that risk. I mean, is building to green standards and promoting locally owned businesses a bad thing?


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Cusack appointment an inside job

Cusack, kessel

Richie Kessel has worked hard to try and change the image of the New York Power Authority, but his appointment of former board member Elise Cusack to a $77,500 part-time job is a stark reminder that this leopard has yet to change its spots.

This is the same NYPA that has a boat load of employees making over $100,000 a year, that thinks nothing of paying security guards and laborers $60,000 a pop.

I'll give Kessel credit for cutting the bonus program a year ago and holding the line in contract talks since he came on board as president and CEO.

But creating a job for Cusack - no one else was considered for the post - and attaching a $77,500 salary for part-time work it is going to prompt a lot of folks to shake their heads and say "Same old NYPA."

As George Maziarz, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, put it:  "Seventy-seven-thousand, five-hundred dollars a year? Part-time? It's outrageous."

Kessel would have us believe Cusack's hiring is justified because she did a bang-up job on the board and NYPA has a big ongoing role to play in the development of Buffalo's inner-harbor.

Wrong and wrong.

Cusack was almost invisible during her nearly five years on the board. Hell, there was a year when she rarely even showed up for meetings.

And NYPA's role in CanalSide largely involves writing a check. The project is receiving some $100 million via NYPA through several deals negotiated over the years with Congressman Brian Higgins. The task of spending that money rests with the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp.

I mean, how many state authorities do we need involved in the project?

If Kessel needs someone on his staff to interact with the CanalSide folks, he's already got employees  working out of a satellite office on Perry Street.

To say nothing of the several hundred people he's got working up the road in Lewiston at the Niagara Power Project.

To say nothing of the cast of thousands working out of HQ in White Plains.

When it's all said and done, Casack's appointment has the marks of a make-work position - and an inside job.

Meanwhile, Western New York is still waiting on Kessel to follow through on his pledge to share a portion of the profits generated at the Niagara Power Project.

He promised to share the wealth a year ago when Higgins introduced federal legislation to force the issue. While NYPA did come through with more money to help finance CanalSide, it has yet to commit money for economic development in Niagara County, where the power plant is located. 

Meanwhile, the Power Authority keeps acquiescing to demands from Albany to sweep its books of profits to help bail out the state budget. That leaves no money for the community.

So, while I'll give Kessel credit for doing more for WNY, I'll also point out that in some important ways, it's still the same old, same old.


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One more boarded up building

They started boarding up the Lafayette Hotel on Thursday. It will serve as a bookend to the boarded up Statler Building, which dropped some more chunks of cornice yesterday.

Lafayette hotel But not to fear, Mayor Byron Brown is on it, what with his third reorganization of City Hall's economic development operation in four years. Never mind that the first two didn't pan out and that the third one now underway involves employees sitting around with little to do because the city has stopped taking loan applications or making grants, effectively getting out of the economic development business for the time being.

People used to criticize then Mayor Anthony Masiello for "economic development by press release." Well, folks, what we have now is "economic development reform by press release."

The mayor has long said economic development is his priority. What he has to show thus far are boarded up buildings, a growing number of unemployed city residents and an economic development agency on life support.

Oh, and criminal investigations. Let's not forget about the investigations.

I wonder how that national job search for a commissioner of economic development is going. Have they so much as placed an ad yet?

Look, I don't expect the city's economy to be flourishing, given the recession. But City Hall needs to do the best it can with it has control over. And it's not. 

You can't even get the mayor to show up on time for BERC board meetings, if he shows up at all. What kind of message is that sending?

Akron ohio postcard I've been in several Rust Belt cities the past month, including Rochester and Akron, Ohio. I've ridden and walked their downtowns, and what's struck me is they don't have nearly as many boarded-up buildings as Buffalo.

In fact, their downtowns are in noticeably better shape.

People, I'm talking Akron. Frickin' Akron.

Akron and Rochester have been hammered just as hard as we have over the past generation, but their downtowns don't have expanses that look like Beirut, circa 1980. We've gotten more block grant aid and other economic development assistance than either city -- hell, we may have gotten more than the two of them put together over the past 30 years - and conditions here underscore how badly we've squandered the money.

I don't foresee anything changing soon, given City Hall's continuing ineptitude.

As Sonny and Cher once put it, the beat goes on.

Hit it, kids.


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Money for nothing at BERC

Things have gone from bad to worse at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

Mind you, bad was bad. Loans to One Sunset. Grants to barbershops. Stuff like that.

The agency has descended into a state of paralysis since Mayor Byron Brown announced in February his intention to eliminate BERC and shift its work to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

You'd think the mayor would have had a plan in place before making the announcement, but he didn't. If you're looking for one now, well, keep looking.

Some board members - appointed independent of the mayor, who serves as chairman - were miffed that Brown didn't consult with them before announcing his intention to disband the agency. While I'm told there was some talk about fighting him, there was no evidence of that Tuesday at a board meeting I attended. Instead, there was a lot of talk about "transition."

It became clear to me as the meeting unfolded, and in several subsequent conversations I had with folks later in the day, that there is no plan in place to manage this transition. BERC President Dennis Penman told board members he and several high ranking members of the Brown administration - including Finance Commissioner Janet Penska - are working on it. But he doesn't expect the merger to be complete until September, maybe October.

In the meantime, BERC has stopped accepting loan applications and stopped making grants. Last month, its loan department did close on two previously approved loans worth $375,000, and there are two more in the pipeline, but that's it. If you call BERC seeking to apply for a loan, you're told "no can do."

Keep in mind that BERC does three basic functions - make loans, give grants and manage real estate. And on two of three fronts, there is precious little work to be done.

Now you might argue that given the agency's track record, this amounts to addition by subtraction. Problem is that all this inaction is costing money.

The agency employs, at last count, 25 people, at a cost of $1.2 million.  This money comes from block grant funds - i.e., money intended to fight poverty - and other money intended to promote economic development.

I asked Penman after the meeting if there was any plan to eliminate staff now that there is so much less to do. I was told no.

Later in the day I spoke to a rank-and-file staff member and asked what folks were doing now that the loan and grant programs have been suspended.

"Nothing," I was told. "Nothing."

Some of the staff in the field are managing to keep themselves busy. But many folks working out of BERC offices in City Hall have a lot of time on their hands.

Great. The economy is in the crapper. Poverty in the city is getting worse. Albany's fiscal crisis can't help but trickle down. Meanwhile, the city's economic development agency isn't doing much more than paying people a lot of money to do a little work.

Then there are the lawyers. Don't get me started on the lawyers. 

BERC has a full-time staff attorney. So does BURA. Nevertheless, the BERC board was told Tuesday of plans to hire outside counsel to deal with the merger of the two agencies.

All this leads to the obvious question: How many lawyers is it going to take to screw in this light bulb?

Answer: Too many.

All this grousing overlooks the larger issue related to the merger of BERC and BURA, one I wrote about when it was announced.

Moreover, while BERC has an independent board that includes members with professional expertise, the BURA board is controlled by the mayor and populated with politicians and staff who work for them.

It's pretty obvious that Brown announced the merger at his State of the City address to make a political splash - big surprise there, huh? - without doing his homework. More than a month later, there's not much progress to show. Then again, he got the spin he wanted at the time of the announcement, and wasn't that really the point?

On a more positive note, I'll close by reporting the mayor actually showed up for the BERC board meeting Tuesday. As I've reported in the past, he hasn't been in line for a perfect attendance sticker. But this time around, the mayor is marked down as "in attendance." Alas, he was tardy, showing up a half-an-hour late and doing little at the meeting aside from introducing a member of his staff. 


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Does Carl Paladino ever listen to himself?

Paladino at tea party rally

In the wake of the passage of health care reform, Carl Paladino likened it to 9-11.

"I fear the results of Obamacare will be so horrific that it will kill more Americans through deteriorating health care than were lost on 9/11."

A few days later, he expressed a hope that as governor he would see Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver beaten en route to prison.

"I'm gonna try like hell to send Sheldon Silver to Attica and on the way, we're gonna have him stop in all those little communities on the thruway and let those people beat him up."

On Saturday, Paladino, before speaking at a Tea Party rally, said he was going to be careful to avoid the crazies.

Speaking to The Buffalo News just before his remarks, Paladino said he welcomes tea party support as sharing his frustration with "every level of government." But he also said he will be careful not to be lumped in with "zealots and extremists" who present opportunities for "the opposition to make them look like fools."

Makes me wonder what someone would have to say to be considered a zealot and extremist in Paladino's book.


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Musings for a Monday

There are a lot of screwed-up operations in local government, but for my money, none of them can touch the Erie County Sheriff's Office. 

The county Holding Center is a house of horrors, and Matt Spina reported Sunday on the department's practice of granting what amounts to overtime pay to management personnel to perform a task they don't actually perform. Sheriff Tim Howard doesn't see a problem with this, of course. Then again, he thinks the Holding Center is just dandy, too. 

I'm not sure $425-an-hour lawyers, much less $150-an-hour PR flaks, can save this operation.

Oh, for the old days of B. John Tutuska -- to say nothing of Andy and Barney.

I've heard from two planners who said City Hall never even acknowledged receipt of their resume, much less talked to them, when it conducted its so-called search for a new city planner. Both seem to have legit credentials. The position, if you recall, was filled by a lawyer already on the city payroll who has never worked as a planner.

The folks at have a pretty funny, NCAA-bracket-inspired competition called PoltiFAIL. It pits the usual suspects against each other and lets readers choose who is more at fault for the state of the region. They're down to their Sweet 16, and pairings include Dale Volker vs. George Maziarz, Chris Collins vs. Barbara Miller-Williams, and the Western New York voter vs. Steve Pigeon. Good tongue-in-cheek fun. The list of bad politicians is depressing long, however.

The Chicken Littles are out in full force, with dire warnings from the School Boards Association and Buffalo Superintendent James Williams, about the prospect of massive layoffs if the state doesn't keep funding schools in a style they're accustomed to. A few Assembly members, including Sam Hoyt, have come up with one obvious solution -- a wage freeze for teachers. It's been happening in the private sector -- along with wage cuts -- as businesses come on hard times. Not that I expect the teacher unions to go along, as ever-increasing pay is regarded as an entitlement. I'd like to hear someone talk about consolidation of school services in the short run as a precursor to a merger of districts. We've got more than 30 in Erie and Niagara counties alone. Face it, school property taxes are the real killer in this state, and part of the reason is all the duplication that comes with the multitude of districts.

The recent Assembly vote on the budget included several "no" votes of note, as nine Democrats, including  Hoyt, Francine Delmonte, Robin Schimminger and Bill Parment, joined Republicans in saying "no, we shouldn't." The measure passed anyway, 91-51. It would cut school aid less than what the governor has proposed and enables the borrowing of $2 billion. 

The Citizens Budget Commission, a critic of Empire Zones, sees merit in the Excelsior program proposed by   Gov. David Paterson, saying it has "potential for a better, more effective program." The commission offers this smart analysis on what's wrong with Empire Zones and good about Excelsior.


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Can we call it 'Cakegate?'

Oops, he did it again.

State Sen. Antoine Thompson just can't seem to get out of his own way.

First he was in favor of -- no wait, against -- the ouster of Sen. Hiram Monserrate.

Then he was missing in action while the Senate was in business, only to find out that he had stayed at an oceanfront resort in Jamaica while, um, searching for companies to relocate to Buffalo.

The latest episode involves not just what some see as a jaw-dropping show of self-serving vanity -- his photo on a cake -- but possible violations of state ethics laws by having his staff hustle donations from 20 restaurants to feed his supporters and staff at a St. Joseph's Day Table celebration last week at his district office downtown.

Thompson cake

The Public Officers Law says elected officials can't solicit or accept anything that's beyond a nominal value -- as Gov. David Paterson has learned the hard way -- and a spread with food from 20 restaurants isn't exactly nominal.

And his mug shot on the cake? Well, that's priceless.

What will become of this?

Well, the Legislative Ethics Commission could investigate on its own. Or it could respond to a complaint.

The commission, however, doesn't exactly have a fearsome reputation. I mean, how many legislators have been nailed for accepting donations of this sort since the law was amended three years ago?


Kinda sounds like the state Board of Elections, doesn't it?

What's next for the senator?

I don't know, but I've gotta tell ya, Thompson is slowing me down in pursuit of other stories.

I was sitting at my desk minding my own business a few weeks ago when I got the call about Jamaica. The cake photo arrived unannounced in my e-mail Wednesday and I was digesting my lunch Thursday when a caller alerted me to the provisions of the state ethics law.

For two days now I've been trying to build a spreadsheet to analyze the relationship between hydropower allocations and employment at major recipients of New York Power Authority customers -- come on, admit it, you're dying to read the story -- and I haven't been able to enter my first set of numbers yet. 

I'll try again today, but with my luck, the phone will ring again about our mayor in waiting.

Sorry, NYPA, but you'll just have to wait your turn.


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Antoine takes the cake

Not only is there such a thing as a free lunch if you work for state government, but the dessert tells you who provided it.

Thompson cake

Yup, that's State Sen. Antoine Thompson's mug on the cake.

And just to make sure people knew who it was from, Thompson's people not only saw to it that his picture was on the cake, but that it was left uncarved.

Folks, I am not making this up.

The cake was part of a St. Joseph's Table that Thompson's staff provided to state employees last Friday at the Mahoney Building in downtown Buffalo. Thompson has a district office there, as do numerous state departments.

But fear not, the spread was not paid for by taxpayers or campaign contributors. No, Thompson's staff solicited donations from assorted restaurants.

I imagine, however, that taxpayers paid for the time of staff members to run around to get all the food. They're the same people who have been deployed to perform such vital tasks as planning parades, looking up the birthdays of constituents to mail them cards, and booking oceanfront resorts in Jamaica.

And people say state government is broke.

The cake, by the way, came courtesy of Tempo. I hear it's quite ritzy -- which explains why I've never been there. The menu lists items such as seared Hawaiian ahi loin and Scunghilli fra diavolo and grilled lobster lobster and sweet corn risotto.

Do any of them come with fries or onion rings? Free refills on the Diet Pepsi?


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What $150 an hour will buy you

There are two issues with the Erie County Industrial Development Agency's use of public relations consultants, as I report in Wednesday's paper.

First is their cost -- $150 an hour for the firm now on board, $190 for the previous crew.

Those are prices usually associated with high falutin' attorneys. Go much higher and we're talking services that got Eliot Spitzer run out of office. 

The other issue is what they do  their money, which, as my story in today's Buffalo News demonstrates, sometimes involves enough spin and obfuscation to make all but the most-hardened of PR hacks blush.

Long story short, the ECIDA got called out last August for failing to vet the now-infamous loan application by Leonard Stokes to keep his failing One Sunset afloat. The IDA did little more than run a personal credit check and failed to check the public record, which would have set off all sorts of warning flares, Liens, lawsuits, failure to turn over sales tax receipts to the state. Stuff like that.

Rather than simply admitting they screwed up and promising to do better in the future, the IDA, working with Travers Collins & Co., issued a press release that claimed the loan application had been the subject of a "stringent review," that the handling of One Sunset "adhered to loan review guidelines," and that "due diligence is a way of life for us."

IDA Press Release on One Sunset

Having done the original investigation of the One Sunset deal with Pat Lakamp, I knew the press release simply wasn't true.

Which all begs the question: Why is the ECIDA spending money that's supposed to go towards promoting economic development on public relations consultants?

Especially when it involves spin rather than facts.

At $150 an hour, to boot.

Here's what the damage looked like for "due diligence is a way of life" and other efforts at damage control for the month of August.

Travers Collins bill for August 2009

I'll grant the IDA this much. With a staff of 16 -- down considerably from a few years back and less than half of its do-nothing counterpart at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. -- it doesn't seem like the agency has people sitting around with time on their hands.

On the other hand, the ECIDA is far from the only economic development agency working with a leaner staff, and others somehow find a way of surviving without top-dollar PR help. Some make due with what I know is a foreign concept to people in government here -- collaboration with others in government.

Down the road in Rochester, for example, the public information officer for Monroe County helps out the IDA in issuing press releases and fielding calls from reporters. It would be like Grant Loomis, who functions as a spokesman for County Executive Chis Collins, pitching in.

The thing of it is, when left to their own devices, the folks I deal with at the IDA are generally upfront. Decent people, actually, who get a lot more done with way fewer people than their counterparts at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., who snookered them into lending One Sunset the money.  When I find them fibbing or stonewalling, they're usually in the company of their lawyers or PR handlers.

In the case of the "due diligence is a way of life for us" press release, the IDA and Travers Collins outsmarted themselves.

Mayor Byron Brown had tweaked them in the morning paper one day last August about their role in One Sunset, and by the end of that day they had issued the press release in the mistaken belief that The News was planning, in the words of IDA Executive Director Al Culliton "a very negative, one-sided" story on his agency's role in One Sunset.

The trouble is, as I explained to Culliton on the phone last week, that no such story was in the works. Pat and I had spoken our piece on the IDA's role months earlier in our original investigation. We had no plans for a follow-up story.

I remember reading the "due diligence" press release when it was issued and showing it to Pat.

Our jaws dropped.

Then we had a good laugh.

Then our blood pressures rose.

We decided there was a lot more detail that we didn't report back in May that we should put on the record in the face of the IDA's disinformation.

Here's what we wrote.

And here's what I blogged.

That experience, and the subsequent refusal of the IDA to honor a Freedom of Information request seeking the repayment status of active loans made by its Regional Development Corp., got me wondering just how much money the agency is spending to get all this bad advice.

I filed another FOI request to obtain the IDA's contracts with Travers Collins and Harris Beach and found out the answer is $150 an hour for the flak and $125 to $175 an hour for the lawyers.

Actually, the rates for attorneys in Harris Beach aren't out of line. Even if their lawyers don't understand the FOI Law -- or are simply intent on ignoring it

As for Travers Collins, I look at the $150 an hour and think to myself that telling the truth doesn't cost a thing.


Want to nose around for yourself? Here you go ...

Travers Collins contract with ECIDA

Travers Collins bills submitted to ECIDA

Eric Mower contract with IDA

City comptroller audit of One Sunset deal


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Health care reform will save lives and money

I usually stick to local and state issues, but, what the hell, let's wade into health care reform. Everyone else is.

A perfect piece of legislation, it isn't. Then again, that could be said about most of the bills passed in Washington. And Albany. And City Hall, for that matter.

That said, the big picture I take away from its passage of the health care reform bill is that it will save money and lives.

A study by the Harvard Medical School concluded last year that 45,000 Americans die annually because of a lack of health insurance, and thus, extending coverage to 32 million Americans is going save tens of thousands of lives every year.

Gee, that strikes me as pro-life.

Meanwhile, the bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office has calculated that the reform bill over the next decade would cut the federal deficit by an estimated $138 billion over the next decade.

You can argue whether the savings could or should have been greater, but $138 billion is not chump change.

There are a ton of details one can argue, but for me, the view from 10,000 feet isn't bad. Certainly better than the status quo, and let's face it, that's what we were looking at. The Republicans, when they in charge, never made a serious stab at health care reform. They were too busy starting wars, wire tapping and water boarding people, and turning Bill Clinton's surplus into a cavernous deficit.

There was room for honest disagreement over what health care reform should have entailed, but let's face it, the Republicans were never serious about an honest debate. It's been all about obstruction.

That's why I get a chuckle when I read Monday that John McCain - the flip-flopping fossil who gave us Sarah Palin -- said passage of health care reform means no cooperation from the GOP for at least the rest of this year.  

To quote the song lyric -- you can't lose what you never had.

Tell us about it, Muddy.

I see one clear benefit from health care reform. Obama and the Democrats have stopped pussy footing around. Or are at least wisening up.

Already, there's talk about pressing ahead with reform of the regulations governing the nation's financial system. That reform enjoys widespread public support and which will likely result in the GOP digging in and siding the the bankers and Wall Street investment houses. That won't go over well with the public, which is why the Republicans would like to keep talking about health care reform.

They'll keep yelling about socialism and other such nonsense. I'm reading a biography of Franklin Roosevelt and it's striking how the rhetoric emanating from the right hasn't changed much over the years. Back then, social security equated socialism. Now, it's health care reform. Race baiting continues unabated. Etc.

Budweiser It's funny how the right was OK with expanding government power when Dubya was president and it involved torture, wire taps and snooping to see what books people were borrowing from the library.

But provide health insurance to Americans - hold on there, you've gone too far.

Honey, find me my concealed weapon, and fetch me a Budwieser while you're at it.

I don't expect it will quiet down any time soon. The Republicans have seen their rule-or-ruin strategy of the past year fail, adding insult to the injury of not only having a Democrat occupying the White House, but a black Democrat. Their defeat over the weekend makes them that much more desperate.


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