The Erie County Industrial Development Agency made a mistake, and it’s a bad one. It’s easy to sympathize with some members’ disdain for developer Carl Paladino, but as crude and hateful as he often is, the issue before the IDA was economic development, not one man’s record of racial intolerance.
But that’s what drove the IDA’s decision to deny $216,500 in tax breaks that Paladino’s company, Ellicott Development, was seeking for its $4.9 million project to convert the vacant School 56 on West Delavan Avenue into 33 apartments. In rejecting the application, the board did someone else’s job, not the one for which the IDA exists.
Leading the charge was Frank B. Mesiah, president of the NAACP chapter in Buffalo and a member of the IDA board. He was appropriately disgusted by Paladino’s hearty support of Joseph A. Mascia, then a candidate for Buffalo Common Council. Mascia had been tape-recorded making vile racial comments about many of Buffalo’s African-American leaders.
This is what Paladino daintily calls his refusal to be “politically correct,” but in truth, it is nothing more than brute nastiness. He finds joy in demeaning others, especially minorities. And, like birds of a feather, he supports others who do the same. Why wouldn’t a man like Mesiah be offended by that conduct?
But Mesiah’s role as a civil rights leader was misplaced in this context. His job is to judge projects and determine whether they are worthy of public support. There may be an argument to be made that the school conversion project doesn’t merit the backing of taxpayers, but that wasn’t what Mesiah said.
“I would vote against anything connected with Carl Paladino because he’s quick to show where he stands racially,” Mesiah said. In doing so, he confused two important roles, even though he attempted to defend his vote by claiming he didn’t believe Paladino would abide by the project’s 30 percent targets for women and minorities. It was a dodge, and a transparent one, at that.
In the end, the 9-2 vote in support of the project fell short of the 10 needed to secure the tax breaks. Two other African-American board members failed to take a stand on the project. Mayor Byron W. Brown didn’t attend the meeting and Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen abstained from voting. Both have said they support the project and both had been targets of Mascia’s racist tirade.
Board member Betty Jean Grant got it right. The Erie County legislator made clear that she was disgusted by Paladino’s support of Mascia, but voted “with a heavy heart” in favor of the tax breaks because of the benefits to the community.
“Sometimes, you have to separate the interests of the city, which needs redevelopment,” Grant said. “He can be dealt with in the political arena.” She was absolutely right, but she must have felt lonely.
This matter should come up for a new vote. Mesiah needs to focus on his duty to the community, and not be swayed by his righteous antipathy to Paladino. Brown and Pridgen also should do their jobs as members of the IDA board.
It won’t be fun. Paladino has earned the contempt that Mesiah and others have for him. But this shouldn’t be about racism or vulgarity or intolerance. It’s about financing a project that stands to be beneficial for Buffalo. That’s the test. It was painful for Grant, but she did her job. The others should follow her lead.