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Racist talk spurs costly backlash

Local NAACP leader Frank Mesiah makes no bones about it: He really doesn’t care for Carl Paladino.

And last week, Mesiah’s disdain for Paladino was enough to block the developer from getting the $216,500 in tax breaks he was seeking for a project to turn the vacant School 56 building on West Delavan Avenue into 33 apartments.

“I object to anything connected to Carl Paladino,” Mesiah said just before the School 56 project fell one vote short of the support it needed to get the tax breaks.

That puts the IDA in a tough spot.

Mesiah’s case against the tax breaks didn’t center around the merits of the $4.9 million project or whether apartments really are a proper use of taxpayer incentives.

Instead, Mesiah said the project shouldn’t get tax breaks because Paladino last month came to the defense of Joseph Mascia, a now-suspended Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority tenant-elected commissioner who repeatedly used the N-word to describe the city’s African-American leaders in a secretly made tape that was made public.

But the IDA’s policy to determine whether a project is eligible for tax breaks doesn’t include a character clause that allows the board to approve or disapprove incentives because of a developer’s behavior or beliefs.

Instead, the policy is intentionally quite rigid, specifying eligibility based on the industry involved, job creation, investment and other set criteria.

While housing usually doesn’t qualify for tax breaks, Paladino’s project was eligible because it would reuse a building that has been vacant for four years and would bring millions in new investment to an economically distressed area (deemed so because it is in Buffalo).

As a result, the project had broad support among the IDA’s board. Even the panel’s other minority members, Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant and IDA board chairwoman Brenda McDuffie, supported the project, although Grant said she did so with “a heavy heart.”

The project’s developers, which include Paladino’s Ellicott Development Co. and Buffalo developer Sinatra & Co., have pledged to award 30 percent of the construction work to women- and minority-owned businesses, and to hire 30 percent of the project’s workforce among women and minorities.

But Mesiah said Paladino’s support for Mascia makes him doubt just how sincere the developers are about meeting those goals.

Mesiah’s opposition to the tax breaks wasn’t surprising. He had made his beliefs well known earlier this month during a meeting of the IDA’s policy committee. He was the only member of that panel to vote against the School 56 project when the policy committee weighed in on whether it met the agency’s eligibility guidelines.

At first glance, the IDA’s 9-2 vote in favor of the project, with one abstention, was a resounding victory for Paladino.

But it wasn’t. With 10 votes required, it was a surprising loss for the developers, and one of the few times that a project came before the IDA board and didn’t leave with tax breaks.

Usually, if a project looks like it will fall short of the votes it needs to snag the incentives, a supporter will prevent it from coming to a vote by delaying the vote until a later meeting, when enough support is definitely in place.

That didn’t happen Wednesday – a sign that the way the vote played out caught even the project’s supporters by surprise.

And this time, Mesiah was in an unusually strong position to influence the fate of the tax breaks.

Receiving 10 votes for the incentives doesn’t sound like much with a 19-member IDA board. But attendance at Wednesday’s meeting was light, with just 12 members attending. Even so, the IDA’s rules still require that a project get 10 votes to pass, regardless of how many board members are present. The tax breaks wouldn’t be approved if just three of the board members at the meeting withheld their support.

That’s exactly what happened. Mesiah, not surprisingly, voted no. The Rev. Darius Pridgen, the Buffalo Common Council president, abstained from the vote because he was one of the targets of Mascia’s racist comments.

And when John J. Mudie, the president of the Buffalo AFL-CIO Labor Council who had remained silent during the board’s debate, voted against the tax breaks, the incentives were doomed.

The defeat was particularly stinging for the developer because the project had enough backers on the IDA board to gain the tax breaks. They just didn’t get enough of them to go to the meeting. Even Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, another target of Mascia’s racist comments, lined up behind the School 56 renovation, writing a letter citing “the positive impact it will have in this residential neighborhood.”

But Brown, who also sits on the IDA board, wasn’t at Wednesday’s meeting. If he had been, his vote in favor of the project would have put it over the top and Mesiah’s opposition would be viewed as a symbolic protest against racism instead of a deal breaker.

The project would convert the 69,000-square-foot former school building into 33 apartments, with rents ranging from $850 to $2,195 a month.

The project, with apartments ranging from one-bedroom units as small as 515 square feet to three-bedroom units as large as 1,325 square feet, also would include 10,000 square feet of space on the ground floor and basement that would be used for nonprofit groups.

Ellicott Development also is expected to seek property tax breaks through a program administered by the City of Buffalo, along with historic tax credits.

Paladino immediately accused Mesiah of letting his personal feelings interfere with him doing his duties as an IDA board member. He said the developers would bring the project back to the IDA board for reconsideration. If not, he said they might sue the IDA board for “being selective in the application of its discretion.”

“We have allowed that nonsense to go on for so long that people think it is OK for representatives and appointees to misrepresent the citizens who put them in their jobs,” Paladino said.

If the developers do go back to the IDA, they’ll have to modify the project in a meaningful way, said Robert Murray, the agency’s general counsel.

Maybe they tweak the design. Maybe they increase the targets for minority and women-owned businesses during construction. Maybe they agree to set aside an apartment or two for low-income residents.

Regardless of what happens, there will be little doubt that racism carries a powerful backlash.