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We've all heard growing criticism about industrial development agencies. There are charges that IDAs have failed to promote economic development and have cost taxpayers money. There are calls for representation by elected officials on IDA boards. There are objections to such specific IDA projects as medical office buildings.

In Erie County, a basic debate is raging about whether one single IDA should represent all the municipalities here or whether the current six IDAs should be maintained.

While on the surface the idea of having just one IDA seems to fit right in with the concept of regionalism and consolidation fostered by last June's Chautauqua conference, we in Hamburg feel local IDAs are best equipped to tout the strengths of their own municipalities.

Not all towns set up their IDAs in exactly the same way. Since the Hamburg IDA's inception in 1986, its board of directors has included public officials representing taxpayers who are affected by projects receiving IDA assistance. That's a different situation than on some town IDAs that have come in for heavy criticism.

In Hamburg, these public-official members are the town supervisor, a member of the Town Board and a representative appointed by the village boards of Hamburg and Blasdell.

In 1994, recognizing the impact that IDA projects have on school taxes, we requested and received permission to expand the board from seven to nine members, adding representatives appointed by the Hamburg and Frontier school boards.

If the Hamburg IDA were eliminated, we would eliminate the ability of our two school districts, our two villages and our town board to comment and vote on economic assistance for businesses that affect people they represent.

What about a municipality's right to control the types of economic development projects it wants and where it wants them? There has been consistent planning direction in the Town of Hamburg for more than 15 years.

The town board initiated efforts in 1982 to develop a master plan as a guide to its future planning. The result, entitled "A Guide for Future Town Development," was completed and adopted by the Hamburg Town Board in March 1983. It was updated in 1997 to address changes in land use, zoning, population characteristics and residential and commercial development.

The master plan gives our IDA the ability to decide for itself, in concert with the town board, (which appoints our members) what types of development we want to foster and where we want this development to take place. There is no guarantee that a single countywide IDA would accept the goals and objectives for orderly development that have been adopted as part of our town's master plan.

Another concern raised about IDAs -- and rightfully so -- is about the type of projects that receive assistance. A case in point is medical office buildings.

Within the last few months, the Niagara County IDA gave tax breaks to a new medical office building in North Tonawanda. In 1995, the Erie County IDA approved a $3.46 million bond package for Buffalo Medical Group to build a medical office facility in Orchard Park. To County Executive Gorski's credit, he vetoed the deal.

In 1994, the Hamburg IDA was approached by the developers of a medical center for assistance. After reviewing the project, the board of directors made the decision that doctor offices should not be eligible for IDA assistance and turned down their request.

This was a responsible decision made by a town IDA.

I also have to take issue with the belief that IDAs cost the taxpayers money. Hamburg IDA-assisted projects have, in most cases, taken otherwise undeveloped sites that generate little or no tax revenue and put them to work for the taxpayers of the town. An example is the Ravenhood North Industrial Park. Instead of receiving $255,279 in taxes over 15 years from vacant land, local tax coffers will receive $6.1 million from the tenants who occupy that land.

The local school district will get $3.1 million of that.

The Hamburg IDA's function is not only limited to providing financial incentives to attract industry and business. It also furnishes information, assistance and knowledge to guide potential town businesses through regulatory barriers, town procedures and local issues that would affect their businesses.

The public is right to scrutinize IDAs closely and support legislation to make reforms where necessary. In fact, the Hamburg IDA has been a leader in instituting policies now called for by many reformers.

In Hamburg, not everyone will agree with everything we do, but we are trying our best to do what is right for the taxpayers and feel we deserve credit where credit is due.

MICHAEL J. BARTLETT is the executive director of the Hamburg Industrial Development Agency.

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