Will Burbank

A surprise item that was not on the agenda of the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) may be formally presented next month, or it may disappear altogether. Tompkins County Legislator and IDA board member Will Burbank (D-Ithaca) proposed that the IDA declare a moratorium on new project funding “until we have a CIITAP policy in place,” which would address public concerns about tax abatements supporting developers who don’t use local labor at prevailing wage. 

Although a City of Ithaca CIITAP (community investment incentive tax abatement program) policy is in place now, complaints from the public and the unions that the criteria for abatements are too generous have sent Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick back to the drawing board; a new committee was recently formed to address the policy. A city project proposed by local developer Jason Fane was shot down in December 2014 although it met the letter of the current CIITAP criteria; public criticism was that the project wasn’t green enough, and some opponents said Fane had a poor record as a landlord. 

Local electrician Alex Hyland addressed the Thursday, July 9 meeting of the IDA. After a five-year apprenticeship in the electrician’s union, Hyland said he is hoping to make his future in Tompkins County, but he is having difficulty finding work. “It’s really hard for me to live here and compete [with outside labor]. Taxpayer-subsidized businesses should be obligated to provide jobs for people who live here and pay taxes here,” said Hyland. “Please don’t support a race to the bottom. Please don’t make me sell my house and make me move to a community that has a lower cost of living. I grew up here, I love it here, I want to stay here.” 

County Legislator and TCIDA board member Martha Robertson (D-Dryden) said Hyland’s not the first person to make that case: “The public keeps making the same complaints, and nothing’s happened. This is public spending, and the feeling is that we should ask more of the developers.” 

Burbank proposed the moratorium, he said, because “while we have good efforts underway, the process has been very slow. I want to speed those committee efforts up.” 

IDA chair and County Legislator Jim Dennis (D-Ulysses) expressed surprise that Burbank brought the motion to the floor, saying he had spoken with Burbank earlier in the day. “I called Will earlier today and he assured me there wasn’t going to be a motion for a moratorium.”

However, Burbank said he at least wanted to start a discussion. 

Mayor Myrick said, “A moratorium doesn’t slow things down; it stops them. A moratorium should not be used unless you think the current policy is worse than no policy at all. You don’t just stop projects for six months; sometimes, you stop them forever. Construction projects are dependent on timing that can be very delicate.” 

Myrick said he would not support a moratorium, and not because he doesn’t support a change in labor policy. “We have done moratoriums. The one in Collegetown was particularly devastating, with unintended consequences.” Inside the moratorium zone, buildings became dilapidated, while across the street new buildings went up: “In one case, you create borders,” said Myrick. 

“You just don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side of a moratorium. Developers won’t make that colossal bet, based on a policy of the IDA, because they don’t know which way we’re going to go,” he finished. 

Robertson responded, “We’re not stopping anybody from building anything. We’re talking about the tax abatements the IDA has to offer. I don’t think this is going to be fatal to any project. We’ve been talking about this forever and developers know that. It shouldn’t be a shock to anybody.” 

IDA board member (and president of the Ithaca/Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce) Jennifer Tavares questioned whether a moratorium was an appropriate action for the agency in the first place. “I don’t know that we can say, we’re not going to do our job for six months. I have to take a step back when I hear we are just going to stop doing business.” 

Attorney for the IDA Mariette Geldenhuys said she is not aware of any IDA declaring a moratorium. “When municipalities declare a moratorium, it’s usually a modification of zoning, and there are very strict requirements, with a lot of steps that have to be taken. I’d be very concerned about doing that without the level of formality [that is customary].” 

Dennis, Tavares, and Myrick spoke against a moratorium; Robertson and Burbank supported one, as did Nate Shinagawa. Shinagawa qualified his support: “I’m concerned with the degree it’s used; it ought to be limited to a short period of time.” IDA board member Grace Chiang was absent. 

In the end Burbank withdrew his motion and asked that it be put on the agenda for next month’s meeting. However, he said to Geldenhuys, “I will ask you for your help in defining this. Perhaps another word than moratorium would be appropriate.” 

•     •     •

In the regular business of the IDA, Ithaca College requested a reduction in the IDA’s administration fee on bonds the college used to pay for construction projects. The college is refinancing the bonds. “The fee we would get would be lower anyway,” said Dennis after the meeting. The motion passed. 

Another motion that passed was for a request by Tompkins Financial Group, which is planning an expansion of its downtown plant, for a tax abatement. TC Trust Co. president Greg Hartz said the abatement is appropriate because it will cost nearly four times as much over a 20-year period to have their offices downtown than it would in a rural location. Construction downtown is much more expensive, too. Hartz said two consultants, each approaching the question differently, came up with the same numbers for the initial cost of the project: about $3 million more to build downtown than in the country. “They estimated $30 more a square foot,” said Hartz. 

The question of using local labor came up. “I can’t say for sure whether [the contractor] used prevailing wage or not,” said Hartz. “We haven’t commanded it. We have requested it. We do buy local and encourage the use of local labor; I think people know this about us.  But, there may be instances where a contractor has to use non-local labor to get the job done.” 

Burbank also asked about the use of green energy sources for the project, but Hartz said they were nowhere near that stage of the project. “It’s important to remember that a developer spends hundreds of thousands of dollars before they even go forward with the building; it’s conceivable that we could decide to not even do the process.” 

The IDA voted 6-0 in favor of the abatement. •

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

This is a space for civil feedback and conversation. A few guidelines: 1. be kind and courteous. 2. no hate speech or bullying. 3. no promotions or spam. If necessary, we will ban members who do not abide by these standards.

Recommended for you