In a bill that became law in 2003, the state of New York expressed a wise willingness to spend many millions of dollars to take areas large and small out of the economically deadening "brownfield" category and make them attractive to those who would turn them into shiny new homes and businesses.
Four years on, the tab for grants to communities and tax credits to developers has flown past $1 billion, on its way to more than $2.5 billion. But very little of it is to be seen in new businesses or affordable housing. There is nearly $75 million in grants stuck in the state bureaucracy. And, as just one example, there's $158 million worth of tax credits wrapped up in the swanky Chelsea digs of media mogul Barry Diller.
The new administration of Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer -- yes, hard to believe it's been less than a year -- has resolved to fix the problem it inherited. The Legislature should go along.
There are two main components to the 2003 brownfields law. One offers state grants to local governments so they can take inventory of, and create new visions for, specific areas that badly need redevelopment but won't see any until the toxic debris of previous uses can be cleaned up. The other part offers tax credits of up to 22 percent of project cost to developers who take the bit in their teeth, clean up brownfields and build something new on them.
The problem with the first method is that only about 10 percent of the nearly $75 million authorized for community brownfield grants has actually been released to those communities. Among those waiting are neighborhoods in Buffalo, Amherst, Niagara Falls and Lockport.
The hang-up, apparently, is that even after the applications have been passed through the appropriate bureaucratic boxes, the law requires a final sign-off by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate. A fix passed by the Legislature in April means that future grants won't have to go through that unnecessary process, but the awards already in the pipeline are still stuck there, reportedly waiting for no more than the hashing of language.
The second unintended consequence of the brownfields law is that, because the tax credits are officially eligible not just for cleaning up a toxic piece of property, but also for the project that will be built there, taxpayers have found themselves subsidizing up to 22 percent of the cost of swanky deals, offering more than $1 billion so far in credits for projects built by people who, often, need no incentive to build temples to themselves.
A change the governor's office will propose to the next legislative session would figure future tax cuts based on the cost of brownfield site remediation, not the much larger value of the completed luxury hotel or exclusive condo project. It's a good idea.
Much as we wish it were otherwise, the fact is that there are only so many greenbacks available to reclaim the brownfields. They should be put to much wiser and more targeted uses, so that something can finally get done.