Outrages & Insights / End the fiscal insanity
Subsidies and hand-outs have run amok
Photo by kc kratt
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
We need to stop spending money on the wrong things.
Case in point: in retrospect, does anyone still think spending more than $900 million in taxpayer funds to build and equip a plant for Tesla is money well spent? For jobs paying as little as $16 an hour? If—and it’s a big if—Tesla meets its goal of creating 1,460 jobs, taxpayers will have spent an average of $657,000 for each and every job created. The federal government has a subsidy cap of $35,000 per job, which, if adhered to with the $959 million doled out to Tesla, will have generated 27,400 jobs.
Face it, the Tesla, aka SolarCity, plant was a trophy project—and a way of rewarding one of his large campaign contributors—for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sadly, most of the governor’s Buffalo Billion program has been a wasted opportunity.
And there is more waste in the pipeline, proposals that do not deserve the support of taxpayers. While it’s not yet on the radar screen, it will take big bucks to upgrade the downtown hockey arena. It’s twenty-four years old—about the lifespan of the building’s electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems—and the facility is generating a growing number of complaints from fans for its outdated creature comforts. I’m told the team is quietly obtaining cost estimates and has started conversations with state officials.
Fine, upgrade the facility. But the team’s owners should pay for it. The building was constructed with public dollars and eventually turned over to the Sabres to operate. The team essentially got the building for free. Asking for a subsidy to pay for upgrades is akin to someone who was given a house for free asking years later that the grantor pay for renovations.
We taxpayers also should not pay for a new stadium for the Bills. League officials now appear to be backing off their earlier insistence that a new stadium is a necessity. But the issue is far from settled. At best, we might be faced with a demand for yet another costly upgrade of New Era Field.
We should say no. We should not be subsidizing a highly profitable business by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a facility that will sit vacant 355 days a year.
Then there are a couple of proposed projects with a more immediate horizon. There’s a downtown convention center. Yes, the current convention center is kind of a dump. But it’s well established that convention centers in mid-sized markets like Buffalo don’t pay for themselves.
And the proposal to extend MetroRail to Amherst makes absolutely no sense, from a fiscal or transportation sense. It’s nothing more than a feel-good, trophy project. Study after study has established that rail transit only works in congested regions. We’re not one of them. What’s more, an extended rail line would compete for dollars needed to run a good bus system, which the transit-dependent rely on to get around.
It’s not as though we as a community don’t have capital needs. The City of Buffalo commissioned a study about five years ago that identified more than $500 million of needed capital upgrades. City Hall has been negligent in maintaining its public facilities—libraries, parks, museums, community centers—and there’s a lot of catch-up to do.
Our public infrastructure around the region is also in need of attention. Many creeks and streams are badly polluted—think Scajaquada Creek—because of inadequate sewage transmission and treatment facilities. Many water delivery systems are also antiquated. The Erie County Water Authority has some 500 miles of water lines, some more than a century old, that are in need of replacement. The estimated cost: a billion dollars, give or take. Money available: $25 million or so annually.
Is a billion dollar football stadium that gets used ten times a year more important?
Unnecessary capital projects aren’t the only drain on the public treasury. There is the cost of local government. Or, as I see it, welfare for the political class. Erie and Niagara counties include no fewer than sixty-five cities, towns, and villages, and forty school districts. That’s a lot of overhead, wasting tens of millions of dollars a year. Then there are the nine separate—and sometimes competing—industrial development agencies. And four separate community college campuses. (It doesn’t end there.)
Bottom line: taxpayers in Western New York are burdened enough. They should not be asked to finance dubious projects or continue to overpay for bloated local governments.