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Mohan suggests suburban IDAs could merge to serve their needs

Amherst Supervisor Satish Mohan, injecting a new wrinkle in the debate over merging the Amherst and Erie County industrial development agencies, said Monday that the region's five suburban IDAs could merge into a single agency to focus on issues important to those towns.

Mohan, who made his comments during a meeting of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, said Amherst Town Board members, who voted last month to look into merging the two IDAs, are "not at all happy" with the way the ECIDA is structured.

Those Amherst officials believe the Erie County IDA board does not have enough representatives from the region's suburban towns and is too beholden to special interests, such as labor unions. Mohan said that concern would have to be addressed if a merger between the two agencies were to move forward.

If not, Mohan, who regularly questions the need to offer tax breaks to companies coming before the ECIDA, suggested that the county's five suburban IDAs could merge to form a single entity that would better represent their interests.

"I see lots of companies moving from Town A to Town B, and I can see clearly why they are doing it: Their incentives are expiring," he said.

Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who has long supported the notion of a single IDA in Erie County, did not address Mohan's latest suggestion, but said he welcomed the renewed discussion of merging the region's two largest IDAs. "I'm very encouraged by what's happening," he said. "I think it's very timely."

Charles Webb, the president of the Erie County IDA, said the agency's attorneys would be available to discuss the process and implications of a merger. Giambra asked IDA officials to prepare an outline of the legal scenarios that might be associated with a merger, which would require changes in state law.

Michael Bartlett, the executive director of the Hamburg IDA, said he had not heard any proposal to create a suburban IDA.

"I'm not so sure, off the top of my head, that it's such a great thing," Bartlett said. "Right now, I think any town that's got its own IDA would be nuts to get rid of it because of the added flexibility," he said. "We can base our needs on the needs of our clients."

The Erie County IDA also reviewed a staff report that recommended few changes in the agency's policies for granting tax breaks to housing projects.

One of the most controversial aspects of the debate has been over whether senior housing for mid- to upper-income residents should be entitled to taxpayer subsidies. The Erie County IDA granted tax breaks for Amherst's Canterbury Woods and Orchard Park's Fox Run life care communities last year before imposing a moratorium on new housing projects.

The report did not recommend any change in the policy over incentives for life care communities, but no new projects are expected in the near future, said John Cappellino, the IDA staff member who outlined the housing policy committee's findings.

"We felt with the two facilities in the county, for the immediate time being, that would be all the projects coming to us," he said.

The committee did not recommend changing the housing policy to prohibit aid to market-rate housing projects, although the IDA has not provided tax breaks to any in the past.

Board member Susan McCartney said that flexibility could be useful in spurring residential development in the city, at buildings such as the Webb Building or, potentially, the abandoned AM&A's building.

But Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis Gabryszak, a staunch opponent of aid to market rate housing projects, urged a more stringent approach.

"I don't think we ought to be using subsidies to do anything with market-rate housing," he said. "We're here to create new jobs and opportunities . . . Aiding market-rate housing doesn't do that."

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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