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State panel approves $485 million to complete SolarCity project

ALBANY – A state panel on Wednesday afternoon approved $485 million in funding to complete the SolarCity project in Buffalo, though not without imposing additional scrutiny over how the money is spent in the months ahead.

The approval by the Public Authorities Control Board, meeting in a narrow, windowless room on the state Capitol’s first floor, ensures a steady flow of money for the construction, which earlier this year saw the temporary layoffs of nearly 200 workers on the job during an embarrassing cash flow episode in Albany.

A resolution approved by the five-member by the board – controlled by the three representatives of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – requires what a spokesman for Heastie said are additional levels of public disclosure and accountability.

The additional conditions were demanded by the legislative leaders of the Cuomo administration, whose economic development agency recently sent the $485 million funding request to the control board for its required approval.

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Heastie, said the funding was backed to allow the RiverBend project to proceed. He called the project “a critical component to the economic resurgence of Western New York.”

But he said the control board, after input from lawmakers, including members of the Western New York delegation, imposed a number of conditions in return for releasing the funds.

They include:

• Removing vague language in a resolution originally submitted by the administration to the board about the money also being used to benefit “additional beneficiaries” later, which legislators said could have sent the money to uses beyond the RiverBend site. The board required that the $485 million pot go only to the SolarCity project at RiverBend, unless a redirection of any of the funds goes back to be approved by the control board;

• Placing additional responsibility on Fort Schuyler Management Corp., the SUNY Polytechnic-created not-for-profit that oversees the SolarCity construction project, to maintain job creation estimates by SolarCity and to submit any changes to Cuomo’s economic development agency;

• Having all of the project’s expenditures be subject to review by Bart M. Schwartz, the Manhattan lawyer recently hired by Cuomo after the governor’s office was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors. The governor’s Empire State Development Corp., the funding agency of the Buffalo Billion, will be responsible to also review all specific spending at the site, and Fort Schuyler must report monthly to the economic development agencies on invoices paid, as well as estimated future payments and status updates of the project. The control board also is requiring that it be briefed monthly about finances and the project’s timetable.

The additional conditions imposed on the spending come nearly four weeks after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hit Cuomo’s office with a subpoena demanding information about the SolarCity and other Buffalo Billion projects, as well as various economic development initiatives across the state.

The $485 million will go to future spending on the SolarCity facility and equipment within the structure that will be owned by the state. A portion of the money also will go to site work at the overall RiverBend property where SolarCity is locating its factory, including money to cover part of the $50 million in higher-than-projected costs for the site.

The approval comes 10 days after the control board was scheduled to consider the $485 million plan; last week’s meeting was scrubbed when legislative leaders – given the size of the Cuomo funding request and the recent developments in the Bharara investigation – insisted on more information about how the money was going to be spent.

“There’s always room and a reason to have oversight,” Flanagan said in an interview.

With the Buffalo Billion program run by executive branch officials, the Senate leader said “the executive should and needs to be held to a higher standard.”