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Despite Concerns, State Board Votes To Approve Buffalo Billion Funds

Office of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo

A board controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislative leaders voted Wednesday to approve more than $485 million for the Buffalo Billion project. But some board members had questions about details of a program that is now under federal investigation.

The vote to approve nearly $500 million in new funding for the Solar City factory in Buffalo was delayed for a week after the Assembly speaker and Senate leader said they lacked information about the projects. The program, as well as other Cuomo administration economic development projects, is the target of a federal probe.

The Buffalo Billion funds are administered by Fort Schuyler Management Corporation, which is not subject to public meeting or freedom of information laws. Critics call it opaque.

The representative for the Assembly Democrats on the board did require, as a condition for a “yes” vote, that the Cuomo administration provides monthly progress reports on the projects and more accurate information on whether job creation goals are met, and if not, that appropriate financial sanctions are imposed. 

Assemblyman Joseph Giglio (R-Olean) is the minority party representative on the board. He said the projects are “vital” to western New York, but he’s not satisfied that he’s been told all the details.

“Our concerns are very basic,” said Giglio, who said he’s seeking a “clear delineation of where the money starts and where the money ends up, and who is responsible.”

Lawyers and officials from Cuomo’s Empire State Development Corporation and Fort Schuyler Management answered in general terms. Kevin Younis, chief operating officer for Empire State Development, said, “It’s standard industry construction practice with the forms.”

Giglio, as a minority member, does not have voting rights on the board. Assembly Minority Republican Leader Brian Kolb said the voting board members should have waited.

“Why is this last minute?” asked Kolb. “What’s the rush?”

Kolb said there are no details about the inner workings of the Fort Schuyler Management Corporation that is run by the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, the Albany-based NanoCollege that is involved in numerous high-tech and other projects across New York. The U.S. attorney’s probe is focusing in part on Fort Schuyler’s decisions to hire politically connected contractors to do the work funded with the public money. 

Kolb said Cuomo’s initial budget proposal called for just $10 million to be allocated to the giant solar manufacturing plant on the site of a former steel factory, but in the 11th hour of private budget meetings between Cuomo and legislative leaders, the future ballooned to nearly half a billion dollars.

“How did this all change?” Kolb asked. “Who is in charge of this and how is it all unfolding?”

Jason Conwall, director of public affairs for Cuomo’s Empire State Development, said he didn’t know who is in charge of Fort Schuyler Management.

A spokesman for Cuomo’s budget office, Morris Peters, said it’s no secret that the $485.5 million allocation for the Buffalo Billion was part of the final budget deal.

Kolb said he also has concerns about the downsizing of job projections. Solar City originally said that 1,460 manufacturing jobs would be created, but that has now dwindled to about one-third of that amount, or around 500 jobs, though the company said other types of jobs will be created to total 1,460 positions. Solar City’s stock also has taken a nosedive.

While the vote to allocate the nearly half-billion dollars in public funds is final, Cuomo’s own special investigator, Bart Schwartz, will be reviewing each work contract before the payments are sent out. Cuomo appointed his own prosecutor after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara subpoenaed records for the Buffalo Billion and other Cuomo administration economic development projects.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.