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Discussion over tax breaks heats up; Depew mayor stops impromptu news conference by lawmaker over IDA's incentive for pizzeria

Whether to grant sales tax breaks was the topic of a heated political conversation on the corner of Broadway and Penora Street in Lancaster on Friday.

The Lancaster IDA had rejected a request by a Depew pizzeria asking for a sales tax break more than a month ago, but some IDA members later changed their minds and are reconsidering the vote. Penora's Pizzeria is in the Lancaster Enhancement Zone, which makes it eligible for the aid, and the IDA is urging Penora's to reapply.

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, scheduled an impromptu news conference Friday to try to convince the Lancaster IDA to reconsider its decision. He set up a podium right across the street from the pizzeria.

It quickly turned into something of a turf war.

Depew Mayor Steven P. Hoffman, a member of the Lancaster IDA, interrupted Ryan and attempted to defend the IDA's action as a boost to the local economy. He then tried to engage the assemblyman in a debate right on the street, but Ryan -- or more specifically his assistant -- wasn't having any of it.

"As far as I'm concerned, Sean, you have no business being here," Hoffman said, interrupting the assemblyman's statement. After Ryan was allowed to finish, his assistant, Cody Meyers, quickly yanked the podium away before Hoffman was able to speak, claiming it was "their podium."

Two police officers stopped next to where Ryan was speaking to watch the group.

Ryan said afterward that he'd never seen anything like that before, adding that he saw two or three other police cars circling the area. He called the police involvement "outrageous" and wondered if taxpayer money could be spent more wisely in regards to how on-duty officers spend their time.

The dissension between government officials and local IDAs has come to a head in Depew, as state government officials say they are no longer willing to allow taxpayer money to be spent improperly at the town and village level, Ryan said.

The Buffalo lawmaker said with the state of the local economy, taxpayer dollars should be going to businesses that are creating new high-paying jobs.

"[This is] like a bad zombie horror movie," said Ryan, standing a few feet from the hectic midday traffic backdrop. "The IDA vote is back again," he said.

On the other side of the debate, supporters of the current system that allows IDAs to offer breaks to pizzerias maintain that the high-paying jobs Ryan envisions aren't realistic.

Ryan is convinced that the Lancaster IDA's decision to reconsider the pizzeria tax breaks will hinder efforts to support real economic growth and development in the region.

Hoffman thinks that if a tax break is given to Penora's, it will be able to pay it back within three months after the pizzeria's renovations are complete with increased sales taxes.

A new economic policy endorsed by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council focuses on bringing in high-paying jobs, which Ryan believes can't work effectively if local IDAs continue to give handouts to pizzerias and other such establishments that don't fit into the model the council is pushing.

"A pizzeria in Cheektowaga is not eligible, a pizzeria in Lackawanna is not eligible, and a pizzeria in the city of Buffalo is not eligible for this money," Ryan said. "So we need to have consistent economic development policies. If you think about it, why is a government subsidizing a pizzeria? It's not the business of a government. Governments should stay out of businesses."

Ryan has sponsored legislation, with the backing of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, that would limit the impact and ease with which local IDAs in Erie County hand out money.

"Over half of the counties [in New York State] have one IDA, the five boroughs of Manhattan have one IDA, only Erie County has six or more IDAs," Ryan said. "That hasn't really served us well We've created a very expensive system that's gone far from its original mission."

Hoffman said that he thinks there will be another vote on the pizzeria tax breaks in early July. He said he is determined to help local small businesses that he thinks will improve the local economy.

"This whole situation [today] is a dog-and-pony show," Hoffman said. "[Ryan] is coming to make a statement that [the IDA] shouldn't give to Penora's pizzeria, but if it was Penora's Bistro or Penora's Bakery, are they eligible for the money? Right now it's the small businesses that are the backbone of Erie County."