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Niagara officials fight over Yahoo grant program

LOCKPORT – The Town of Lockport and the Niagara County Legislature are objecting to the rules for awarding grant money originating with the Internet company Yahoo.

The Legislature passed a resolution this week that called on Empire State Development to make all of Niagara County eligible for one of the two Yahoo grant programs.

Yahoo committed to making annual payments through 2021, a total of $3.5 million, to fund community grants in Niagara County in exchange for the tax breaks and low-cost power it received for its data and call centers in the Town of Lockport’s industrial park.

There are two separate grant programs. One, administered by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, is called the Yahoo Community Benefit Fund and is open only to applicants in the Town and City of Lockport. It started last year with 13 awards totaling $223,041, and is offering $230,000 this year.

The other, called the Yahoo Community Fund for Niagara County, is administered by Empire State Development and is open to any applicant in the county outside the Town and City of Lockport. It is starting for the first time this year, offering a total of $500,000. In future years, the program will offer $250,000 annually. Both programs will expire in 2021.

Five eastern Niagara County legislators declared themselves outraged by the Lockport ban in the second program and sponsored a resolution, which passed by a 9-3 vote, calling on ESD President Howard Zemsky to change the rules to make Lockport eligible for the countywide grants, too.

The programs have different focuses. The Lockport program envisions aid to charitable and not-for-profit groups and programs, while the countywide program is geared more toward business development.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Legislator William J. Collins Sr., R-Lockport, trained his fire on Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development Corp., a Niagara Falls-based ESD subsidiary. Collins said the no-Lockport rule for the countywide grants “amounts to $1.7 million in economic development funds that Mr. Schoepflin has in effect stolen.”

“I think they need to change their course,” said Legislator Anthony J. Nemi, I-Lockport. “I can’t for the life of me explain why Lockport is not included. … It was the efforts of the Town of Lockport that brought Yahoo here in the first place.”

Schoepflin noted that the New York Power Authority and Empire State Development had a lot to do with the incentive package, too, although the property and sales tax breaks in a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, arrangement did come from the Town of Lockport Industrial Development Agency.

“Lockport is receiving the lion’s share of the benefits, including the PILOT,” Schoepflin said. “I’m disappointed that folks in Lockport don’t share the same view.”

The three Niagara Falls Democratic legislators voted against the Yahoo resolution, and Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso got a laugh out of it.

“This is the same thing this Legislature did to the City of Niagara Falls,” Virtuoso said, referring to a county policy that bars any group in the Falls from receiving grants from the county’s share of Seneca Niagara Casino profits. “I find it kind of amusing that you guys are complaining now that Lockport is not included (in one of the Yahoo grants).”

Town of Lockport Supervisor Mark C. Crocker said he will ask the Town Board to pass a similar resolution April 4. “I don’t think just because we get money from one pot, we should be excluded from the other pot,” he said.

All but one of the 13 Lockport grants last year went to groups or projects in the City of Lockport, but Crocker said he doesn’t object to that.