State development agencies secretive on spending

BY TONY FARINA, The Niagara Falls Reporter

I’ve written articles for several publications in recent months and years about the lack of transparency employed by state development agencies that spend millions and millions of taxpayer dollars on various projects and big salaries but rarely respond to questions about their spending and fight Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for invoices and expenses for months at a time with every tool at their disposal.

Two cases come immediately to mind. One is Empire State Development’s Hamister Hotel project in Niagara Falls that so far has not materialized although plenty of taxpayer money has been spent; and secondly the legal expenses mounting up for Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Empire State, which is paying millions in legal fees to defend the state against a wrongful termination suit leveled by a contractor in the replica canal project.

Only last week I filed a second FOIL request with ECHDC for details about what taxpayers are paying Buffalo’s second largest law firm to defend the state against the suit filed by the Dipizio Construction Company which claims it was wrongfully dismissed from the ice rink project and has sued for damages. I don’t expect a full accounting any time soon because the last time I filed a FOIL with ECHDC, it took several months before they provided an early count on the legal expenses which at that time were approaching $400,000, an amount that has long since surpassed.

But if you, as a taxpayer, want to find out how ECHDC is spending your money, you won’t find any recent answers on the agency’s website after 2012, or shortly before the suit filed by Dipizio.

If you go to the state agency’s website, the last entry when it comes to spending taxpayer money is with the 2012 spending plan. And we’re talking big taxpayer dollars, as in $62.75 million. That website also shows no money budgeted for legal fees, a column that has certainly changed in the last three years since the canalside lawsuits in 2013.

Also, the state’s hiring of a new contractor to finish the canal ice rink project started by Dipizio has not met with great success as any casual observer can see at the canalside ice rink which often is little more than a slushy wading pool not fit for skating.

Nor is there any accounting on the ECHDC website about spending with Perkins+Will’s planning and architecture team for Outer Harbor development or for Global Spectrum for the management of canalside, a contract that has since been reassigned after Spectrum went over budget. We will be filing FOIL requests on both those arrangements in the next few days.

What should be a matter of public record, the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars, is not available for review on the agency’s website and officials almost never respond to queries about the status or expenses associated with their projects until they are FOILED, and even that is an ordeal.

In any event, check out the website and you will see clearly that there is no public accounting of their spending for review. I guess we should just take them at their word, like taxpayers did in Albany before Preet Bharara arrived.

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