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Amherst IDA should be willing to provide details of its spending

The Amherst Town Board wants more transparency from the Amherst Industrial Development Agency. While the IDA is an independent organization, it should comply.

The Amherst IDA has been criticized for years for granting questionable tax breaks. The very existence of the county’s municipal IDAs is a matter of debate. They have been accused of poaching business from neighboring towns and ladling out taxpayer money to inappropriate businesses or to projects that would have been built without the breaks. The IDAs do not get money from town budgets. They stay in business by charging a fee for each project, so without a steady stream of projects they’d be out of business.

Amherst Council Member Guy R. Marlette complained that the agency’s budget “isn’t transparent enough,” an understatement at best.

For example, rather than detailing the salaries of IDA employees, the budget lumped them all together in one figure.

It’s understandable why the IDA would want to be vague about its salaries. Information obtained by the town shows a salary of $177,167 for Executive Director James J. Allen. And Allen and three other employees received 3 percent raises in 2014 and 4 percent in 2011.

Compare that to Steven Weathers, CEO of the Erie County IDA, who earns $140,000 a year, plus the potential for an annual bonus and a yearly salary increase. While earning substantially less than Allen, Weathers presides over an organization with a budget of nearly $3 million – more than triple the Amherst IDA’s budget.

Earlier this year, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli issued a report that pushed for greater disclosure and more accountability among Western New York’s IDAs. He was echoing concerns that have been voiced by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

Erie County has five municipal IDAs, and they have long been ripe for real reform. With few manufacturing projects in the works during and after the Great Recession, those IDAs were reduced to funding some retail projects to keep operating. While new rules were designed to avoid this scenario, those rules contain enough loopholes to keep unnecessary tax breaks flowing.

It’s no wonder that Amherst Council Member Steven D. Sanders wants to know more about how decisions are made to grant tax breaks. He once served as the Town Board’s representative on the IDA board and noted that the Town Board appoints IDA members, giving the board some measure of control. He pointed out another murky part of the IDA budget, questioning why a line called redevelopment initiatives has been funded at $20,000 to $25,000 a year even though over the past three years just $2,000 has been spent.

All of these suggestions fall under the category of greater transparency. There is no reason that a public agency such as the Amherst IDA should not comply.