For the past few decades, Henry M. Sloma has been a player in Niagara County, it seems. Today, he's a bigger player than ever.
In October, Sloma, 63, chairman of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency, engineered the controversial property tax break for the county's largest taxpayer, a move that could help AES Corp. win the right to build a $1 billion power plant in Somerset.
"If the announcement is made that we win the plant, Sloma will be the genius that made it possible," said Kevin R. Pierce, president of AES Somerset.
If that doesn't happen, the move will cost the county, the Barker Central School District and the Town of Somerset tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Estimates start at $24 million and go up from there.
"He's certainly the lightning rod for what the IDA has done," said Merrill Bender, former Barker School Board president, who is agitating for Sloma's ouster from the IDA. "I would say his level of popularity here is low."
And that state commission that recommended turning DeGraff Memorial Hospital into a nursing home, closing two Erie County hospitals and scotching the county's sale of Mount View Health Facility?
Sloma again. He was one of the six members of the Western New York regional commission, which joined the 18 statewide members in voting to approve the recommendations.
"I found him to be very insightful," said Paul Boylan, a LeRoy attorney who served beside Sloma on the regional commission. "He was very helpful and had extensive knowledge of nursing homes, especially in Niagara and Erie counties."
Boylan said the final report included the recommendations made by a regional action committee, on which Sloma did not serve. Panel member Robert M. Chur, president of Elderwood Senior Care, said he didn't remember commission members, such as Sloma, trying to influence the action committee's report.
Boylan said Sloma "was part of the subgroup that examined the condition of the rural hospitals."
>A GOP force
Sloma, who lives in Lewiston, declined a request for an extensive interview for this story, saying he felt he had been "belittled" by press coverage.
But interviews with associates and foes reveal a picture of a man who's always taken a deep interest in politics and community affairs, and who has served on dozens of boards, usually without pay, for worthwhile community projects.
They also reveal a staunch Republican whose checkbook has been a factor in GOP candidacies from the town level all the way up to federal politics.
"He's one of the more affluent people in Niagara County, certainly in the top 10," said County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield.
They tell the story of a skilled administrator whose own nursing home was a success and who was called upon to bail out others that weren't.
And the interviews revealed a determined, sometimes headstrong man who is fiercely independent and doesn't respond well to criticism.
"Mickey's a strong leader and he has his opinions," said former Niagara County Legislator Lee Simonson, using Sloma's nickname, which almost everyone who knows him uses when Sloma's back is turned. "I don't think he likes to be called Mickey anymore," Simonson said.
In a brief conversation with The Buffalo News, Sloma said, "People run for office and say, "I'm not afraid to make tough decisions.' Yes, they are. I don't think I'm a bad guy, but I had to make a tough decision. It goes with the territory. I don't mean to do those things to Somerset. It's for a bigger process."
State Sen. George D. Maziarz, who has received $16,401 in Sloma contributions since 1999, said he doesn't think Sloma makes political donations to seek positions of power for himself.
"It's absurd to think anyone would make political contributions to receive seats on nonpaid boards, where you put in countless hours of work and you make decisions that end up angering people," Maziarz said.
But that's exactly where Sloma has ended up repeatedly. He has given at least $45,000 to Gov. George E. Pataki since 1995, and Pataki has placed him on several boards.
From 1995 to 2004, Sloma served on the State Hospital Review and Planning Council, which approves hospital building projects. He also served 10 years on the now-defunct Health Systems Agency of Western New York. He is currently a member of the New York State Board of Professional Medical Conduct.
In 1998, Sloma was chosen as one of Niagara County's representatives on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Board of Commissioners, a seat he still holds. He had been involved in NFTA matters before that, serving on a committee that oversaw design of the new terminal at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Niagara County GOP Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek, whose committee has received thousands of dollars from Sloma over the years, called him "extremely smart, someone willing to take on tough tasks in the community. . .
"History's going to show that whenever something important happened in Niagara County, you'll see that Henry Sloma was right in the center of it working for the community," Wojtaszek said.
Sloma's political involvement has raised some hackles. In 1999, District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III, a Democrat, took heat from fellow Democrats when he faced a primary challenge in a re-election bid. At a meeting in Dante's Ristorante in Niagara Falls, committeemen considering whether to endorse Murphy complained about his appointment of Sloma's daughter, Holly E. Sloma, as an assistant district attorney.
Murphy insisted that he made the choice because Holly Sloma was the best qualified applicant, not for political reasons. Holly Sloma is now the number-three official in the district attorney's office, and earlier this year Murphy chose her sister, Heather DeCastro, as a new prosecutor.
In 2000, Legislature Democrats beefed because Sloma's second wife, Sharon M. Sloma, was chosen deputy social services commissioner.
Henry Sloma took a swing at elective politics in the 1970s. He served a term on the Lewiston Town Board in the 1970s and ran for the 138th District State Assembly seat in 1978, but lost to Democrat Joseph T. Pillittere.
Since then, Sloma has concentrated on business and community activities.
He has been involved in the nursing home business since the mid-1960s, first with his family in Fairchild Manor and later helping other failing nursing homes regain financial health.
In 1991, when the state Health Department barred further admissions of Medicaid and Medicare patients into Mount View, because of a series of negative inspection reports focusing on substandard care, the administrator resigned and the County Legislature hired Sloma to clean things up.
"Those were bad days, probably the worst days of Mount View," Ross recalled. "He set it straight. He's a good administrator."
In less than two months at Mount View, Sloma made enough improvements that the state lifted the admissions ban. By the end of the 1990s, Mount View was so profitable that the county was using its surpluses to balance its overall budget. After that, Mount View fell into the red again, leading to its eventual sale and now, its apparent closure because of the state commission report.
After selling Fairchild Manor in 2001, Sloma became involved in the new Our Lady of Peace Nursing Home in Lewiston. Today, he is president of Heritage Health Care Group, a consulting firm specializing in help to long-term care facilities.
Sloma was named to a vacancy on the IDA board in April 2005, and was quickly elected chairman.
"His expertise in the area of government goes very, very deep," Ross said. "He has a lot of valuable contacts. I also call them resources."
Was Sloma's appointment to the helm of the IDA orchestrated by GOP leaders?
"I can't answer that," Ross said, "but I'm sure people in prominent positions would like a Henry Sloma as chairman of the IDA. He's just one of those people who stands out."
>AES lauds Sloma
One thing is for sure: Pierce of AES likes Sloma at the helm of the IDA. He said if AES wins the new power plant in a state competition, AES will probably ask the IDA to take over as lead agency for the environmental review process, bypassing the Town of Somerset.
The IDA board let Sloma hammer out a new deal with AES after a public hearing, with Sloma in attendance, showed widespread opposition to a 25-year tax break for the power plant. In less than 48 hours, Sloma had a 12-year deal worked out.
Pierce said, "We needed somebody who wasn't personally invested in the taxing jurisdictions to make a fair, common-sense decision on this, not one with a personal agenda. I think anyone who looked at this objectively would concluded that we were being abused [by assessment increases]."
After the Oct. 27 IDA vote, it was the turn of the school district and the town to feel abused.
"[Sloma] basically told us we had to try to work it out," said Somerset Supervisor John E. Sweeney Jr., who said Sloma told the town and school to "live within their means."
"To me, that's not a responsible comment," Sweeney said.
"Several of us from the school went up [Oct. 11] to meet with Henry and [IDA attorney] Mark Gabriele," recalled Barker School Superintendent Steven J. LaRock. "It was a "here it is, take it or leave it' kind of approach."
LaRock said he had wanted a joint meeting where the town, school and county could discuss the AES issue with the IDA. LaRock said Sloma called him from Erie County Medical Center, where the health care commission was meeting, to say there would be separate meetings with each taxing entity, or none at all.
"He said, "We'll set the term of the meeting, and if you don't like that, we'll see you at the public hearing,' " LaRock said. "He kept saying we wouldn't negotiate. That's baloney."
Maziarz denied that he pushed for the AES tax break, although he did say he opposed the 25-year deal. "It's better than the original one," Maziarz said of what the IDA finally approved. "The IDA's an independent body. Anytime people in Niagara County look for a political scapegoat, they start with me."
Simonson said, "I don't think anyone can boss around Henry Sloma. . . . If (he and Maziarz) are on the same page, it's because they're both on the same page. It's not because someone's being led around. Mickey's a big boy. He can take care of himself."