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RiverBend project is too important to be held up by dispute over funding

There is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning of state officeholders who are dragging their feet on providing the necessary $485 million to complete the SolarCity plant at Buffalo’s RiverBend complex: The building is under construction, and well along at that. It’s going to employ hundreds of people and lead to hundreds more jobs.

Yes, state officials are “a bit spooked” right now, but there is no logic in holding up necessary funding for a plant whose construction has already been approved, which stands to change the nature of the Western New York economy and is already on the way to completion.

Do they think they’ll just leave a gargantuan building half-finished and empty, and flush the hundreds of millions of dollars already spent into the Buffalo River?

That may not be exactly what Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, is recommending, but the chairman of the Assembly Economic Development Committee is throwing up objections that fail to take note of the main fact: The plant needs to be completed. Schimminger says delaying the vote on the funding is not meant “in any way to slow down the project,” but that will be the effect if the holdup lasts any length of time. And delay can only increase the cost.

The SolarCity project is the key component of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program, designed not just to turn around Buffalo’s economy, but to seed a new, high-tech economy that will benefit the region for generations to come. Following the example of the successful high-tech economy that Albany seeded in the Capital District, the program uses state dollars to construct cutting-edge facilities that attract interest from companies such as SolarCity. With its agreement to locate at RiverBend, SolarCity is expected to create the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere and to create many other spinoff jobs.

What is necessary to secure the $485 million that will complete the work is approval by the Public Authorities Control Board. The five-member board is controlled by its three voting members, who are appointed by the governor, the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader. They must agree unanimously to approve funding.

In truth, officeholders in what is one of the nation’s most corrupt state government have reason to be spooked. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were sentenced to prison this month after their convictions on separate felonies relating to the abuse of their high offices.

And U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office secured those convictions, has also turned his attention to the details of contracts approved by the state, including those related to RiverBend. That’s what has state officials nervous. Given the culture of corruption that has permeated Albany for decades, perhaps they are wise to be nervous.

But the facts: The factory at RiverBend has been under construction for almost two years. Unless state officials propose to abandon the project and leave a shell of a building to deteriorate like one of Buffalo’s old steel plants, they will have to release the last of the funding. There is no alternative.

The good news is that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appears to have come to that conclusion. On Wednesday, Heastie declared the project to be “worthwhile,” saying “I think at the end, when we do our due diligence, things will work out.”

Presuming Cuomo to be in support of continuing to fund what is, at this point, his signature upstate project, that leaves only Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan to make his opinion known. So far, he is silent.

Every member of the State Senate and Assembly from Western New York needs to get behind this project and urge the Public Authorities Control Board to act.

The authority put off the vote this week and now plans to take it up Wednesday. Members want more specifics from the Cuomo administration. Fine. Then the authority needs to take what is the only logical step and approve this funding. Too much is riding on this.