Rep. Brian Higgins on Monday stepped up his criticism of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., calling on the state waterfront agency to account for how it is spending its money.
Higgins also said he wants an inventory of all payments to the agency made by the New York Power Authority through a re-licensing agreement he helped negotiate.
The congressman, in filing a Freedom of Information request, also wants to know if Power Authority funds are paying the legal costs in a construction dispute between the waterfront agency and the contractor DiPizio Construction. Legal costs have reached $2.67 million and are expected to rise much higher.
"I didn't help lead a fight for millions of dollars in NYPA re-settlement money to be spent on lawsuits," Higgins said in a letter to Thomas Dee, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. "I'm concerned that ECHDC is distracted away from their core mission, and are spending resources that should pertain to the build-out of the 2013 master plan they approved.
"We are also almost halfway through the 20-year timeline with NYPA, and I think it's appropriate that we have a full accounting of where the money went, how much remains and where it's going," Higgins wrote.
Board member Sam Hoyt said the agency would respond to Higgins request, and that NYPA funds were probably used.
"Building the canal was an Erie Canal Harbor-NYPA funded project, so my instinct is that NYPA funds were used in the defense of the lawsuit brought against us, but we're researching it," Hoyt said.
"We are defending a lawsuit, and will continue to defend the corporation in these legal proceedings," added Robert Gioia, the agency's chairman.
The Higgins letter -- which he released to the media -- follows other recent criticisms he has leveled.
The congressman was critical of the waterfront agency in recent months for the inclusion of a Canalside site on the north Aud block as a possible site for a new train station, while he pushed for the Central Terminal. At an April 18 news conference, Higgins accused the agency of dropping the ball on pursuing its master plan, questioning why a public market and Buffalo-themed restaurants were not already open in an area he called a "construction site junkyard."
Last September, Higgins questioned whether the agency – which he helped create – had outlived its usefulness. That came when Higgins' involvement on the waterfront was being overshadowed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who the state agency credits most for waterfront improvements.
Gioia and Hoyt responded at the time by touting Canalside's accomplishments and ongoing projects. The officials also wondered why Higgins had not called them to share his concerns.
On Monday, Higgins said he has not spoken to Gioia or Hoyt about the waterfront in any detail in three years.
"That's never worked," Higgins said. "The only thing they ever responded to is public pressure. They have become very insular and paranoid, and become distracted and have lost their focus with things not involved with waterfront development."
"I'm disappointed by the congressman's comment," Gioia said. "I have spoken with him numerous times in the last three years about waterfront development, and will continue to do so."
In October, Cuomo's announcement of a $1.2 million grant for a carousel at Canalside was preceded by comments from Gioia and Higgins. Gioia, in his remarks, praised the congressman.
"When you think of the waterfront, you think of our Congressman Brian Higgins and all he has done to really improve and make sure that what is done for the waterfront continues to be consistent with the community," Gioia said.
"It's a great partnership," he later added.
Higgins, in turn, praised Cuomo's efforts on behalf of the waterfront.
Hoyt also disputed Higgins' claims that they hadn't talked on issues of substance concerning Canalside in years.
Hoyt said there are projects underway at the inner and outer harbors that will see fruition in coming years.
"Few would dispute there is enormous progress on Buffalo's waterfront," Hoyt said.
"We have a number of exciting projects in the pipeline ready for construction in some cases, and much anticipated future development as well. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also committed $15 million for additional improvements on the Outer Harbor."
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