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Much of the benefits not received

More than 20 community and social activists marched in a cold breeze in front of the temporary offices of PHH Mortgage Corp. in Amherst on Thursday afternoon, protesting the company’s plans to lay off 135 workers after it received $4.5 million in tax breaks from the state and the Amherst Industrial Development Agency.

Members of the Coalition for Economic Justice and representatives of other groups and labor unions paraded back and forth in a picket line, chanting and holding placards denouncing the actions.

Closely watched by a half-dozen security guards and several Amherst police officers in multiple vehicles, the shivering, bundled-up activists called on the mortgage processing and servicing company to keep its promises or return the tax breaks.

In particular, they urged it to reverse its decision, announced last month, to lay off 135 workers between May and July. The signs bore messages such as “PHH, Shame on You,” and” Hire Workers; Don’t Fire Them.”

“PHH, you’re no good. Treat your workers like you should!” the protesters chanted.” Can’t create the jobs, you say? Give us back our IDA.”

PHH Mortgage, a subsidiary of outsourcing company PHH Corp., took over the mortgage operations and loan servicing from HSBC Mortgage Corp. (USA) in Depew, which got out of the business as part of a global restructuring.

Zaepfel Development Co. is now building the company a $35 million, 97,000-square-foot facility on Wehrle Drive. The company’s operations are temporarily housed at 170 and 220 Northpointe, where the protest was held.

PHH took on several hundred workers as part of the deal and pledged to keep 400 jobs and create 400 new ones as a condition of receiving $1.3 million in sales tax breaks from Amherst and up to $3 million in Excelsior Jobs tax credits from the state in late 2012.

But the company has been widely criticized since last month, when it announced the layoffs to reduce capacity because of a drop in consumer demand for new mortgages as interest rates rose.

The protesters wanted to “hold the company accountable for firing workers and stealing our taxpayer dollars,” according to a press release from CEJ.

“PHH is breaking its promises to workers and the communtiy. The public has a right to say we gave you $4.5 million to create jobs. If you’re not going to, give it back,” said Jennifer Diagostino, executive director at the Coalition for Economic Justice. “They just got the money, and they’re already laying people off. How do we know they’re going to keep their promises?”

But the company hasn’t actually received much of the benefits yet.

James Allen, executive director of the Amherst IDA, said PHH has used just $150,000 in sales tax breaks so far, and its property tax payment-in-lieu-of-taxes doesn’t start until the building is completed and at full assessment.

Moreover, he said, the company has indicated to him it intends to achieve the employment goals outlined to the IDA.

“We believe that any threat to ‘claw back’ incentives at this time would be absolutely premature,” he said. “We will monitor the project.”

The state benefits are performance-based, so the company will not receive any of the $3 million in credits unless it keeps 400 jobs and creates at least 300 net new jobs, said Empire State Development spokeswoman Laura Magee. “If the announced layoffs leave PHH with fewer than 400 jobs, the company would be unable to receive any Excelsior Tax Credits,” she said by email.

The groups also criticized the Amherst IDA and the Empire State Development Corp. and called on government officials to make companies more accountable with ‘claw back’ or money-back guarantee provisions to recapture public subsidies when companies fail to meet their obligations.

“PHH is trying to pull a fast one on taxpayers and the Amherst IDA is enabling them,” Diagostino said. “It’s up to our leaders in Albany to put a stop to these corporate subsidy giveaways and pass reforms like the JOBS Act, which would prevent situations like this one from happening in the future and hold companies like PHH accountable for the promises they make.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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