James J. Allen can't remember the Amherst Industrial Development Agency ever taking back tax breaks that it previously had approved unconditionally -- until it happened on Friday.
That's when the agency yanked nearly $200,000 in tax breaks for Exigence LLC's plan to build an urgent care facility on Niagara Falls Boulevard that would offer treatment for minor injuries and illnesses at times when most family doctor offices are closed.
It's not that IDA members didn't like the idea of medical facilities where residents could be treated for step throat, bad cuts and ear infections for about $175, instead of the $1,000 or so that an emergency room might charge.
"I think what they're talking about is great," says Nathan S. Neill, an IDA board member who nevertheless voted to rescind the tax breaks that the agency had granted just a month before.
But giving tax breaks to medical projects is bad business, and not just because projects like Exigence's typically don't qualify for aid the countywide IDA policy. For-profit medical projects are purely local businesses that should stand on their own merits, not by leaning on the backs of taxpayers.
Yet the Amherst IDA has regularly used a loophole in the policy that permits aid to medical projects that would not otherwise be available to grant tax breaks to orthopedic surgeons, MRI facilities and other controversial projects.
However, a similar facility that Exigence opened a couple of years ago on Transit Road in Amherst never even got a hearing from the IDA board because Allen determined that it didn't qualify for aid. Another Amherst urgent care facility, Medfirst Urgent Care, received no direct tax breaks from the agency, although it is located in an office building that received incentives.
This time, though, Allen and the IDA's board members agreed at last month's meeting to grant the tax breaks because a state commission recommended that the use of urgent care facilities be expanded to provide a cheaper and faster alternative to emergency rooms for treatment of minor illnesses and injuries during off hours.
That's when the trouble started. Board members learned that insurer Independent Health was worried that adding more urgent care facilities might encourage people to go to them instead of to primary care physicians, who cost even less. If that happened, it would drive up health care costs, not cut them.
The Communications Workers of America, which represents workers at DeGraff Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda, said it makes no sense to open a new urgent care facility less than three miles away from an emergency room that the state's Berger Commission is proposing to close.
And finally, Amherst Supervisor Satish Mohan, who doesn't like tax breaks for essentially local businesses that serve a local customer base, requested more information from Exigence showing how the project would affect the ongoing effort to triple the size of the emergency room at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. That project would devote a portion of the ER to fast track patients with less serious illnesses or injuries and Mohan rightly fears that the Exigence project could duplicate those services.
Irv Levy, Exigence's chief financial officer, wasn't happy the tax breaks were taken away, but he didn't pronounce the project dead, either. "I won't say it's not viable, but it jeopardizes the viability of the project," he says.
He just doesn't understand why the IDA decided to draw the line with his medical project after aiding others. "We are in Amherst and the precedent has been set," Levy says. "What business merits a tax break more than one that serves this population?"
Bad precedents, though, are made to be broken.