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Changes in Niagara IDA makeup doubted before November vote

LOCKPORT -- It appears unlikely that there will be any changes to the membership of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency board before the November election.

County Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster and Vice Chairman William L. Ross said they both advised against such moves in a closed-door caucus of the Republican-led Legislature majority Saturday in Wheatfield.

Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove had said after Tuesday's Legislature meeting that although the Legislature didn't want to remove IDA Chairman Henry M. Sloma, others on the nine-member IDA board could be replaced.

Ross, C-Wheatfield, said there were "different factions" on the issue and no final decision was made, but he said changes now might harm the agency's mission.

The IDA recently passed tax assistance for the nearly $1 billion HSBC Bank data center in Cambria and this week will begin processing a tax abatement for the Seneca Nation's $19 million golf course in Lewiston.

"If there was a lack of order at the IDA, would it scare new business away?" Ross asked.

In an interview Thursday, Ross had said, "With the new election, we can always sit down and look at every IDA board member anyway."

Also Thursday, Burmaster, R-Ransomville, told The Buffalo News, "I don't know anything bad about any of those people."

Updegrove, R-Lockport, could not be reached to comment Saturday.

His Tuesday statement came after a third failed attempt by the Democratic minority to fire Sloma in retaliation for him engineering a property tax break for AES Corp., the county's largest property taxpayer.

The move has been bitterly criticized by the Barker Central School District, which receives 78.4 percent of its local tax revenue from AES.

The school district, along with the Town of Somerset and the county, have filed lawsuits to block the AES payment-in-lieu-of-taxes arrangement, negotiated by AES and Sloma and approved with only one dissenting vote Oct. 27 by the IDA board.

AES said it needed the tax break to apply for a state contract to build a new power plant in Somerset, but the tax break was not made conditional on the results of that competition. AES did not win the contract.

The PILOT would cost the three taxing entities at least $43.4 million over its 12-year life, compared to what AES would pay if it continued to be taxed at current rates. AES, which paid more than $19 million in combined property taxes this year, would pay $192.6 million over the next 12 years under terms of the PILOT. Its annual bill would drop to $17.3 million next year and sink to $15.8 million a year by 2011.

The IDA board serves at the Legislature's pleasure. Burmaster said he thinks it would be unwise to make any changes unless the court rules the board did something improper, or if wrongdoing is uncovered in a probe recently begun at the Legislature's request by the state Commission on Investigation.

"It's America. We're innocent until proven guilty -- every one of us," Burmaster said.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. has already ruled the IDA had the legal authority to grant the tax break, but a hearing is set for May 7 on whether the agency complied with its own policies during the approval process.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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