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New Yorkers Kept in Dark About Outcomes of Recovery Zone Facility Bond Program

March 31, 2011

Cover photo by Scott Lenger. Used with permission.

UPDATE April 7
After the release of our report, and as reported in Crain’s Insider last week, we have confirmed that New York City Economic Development Corporation officials agreed with one of our recommendations regarding transparency and are considering ways to update the agency’s website to better inform New Yorkers on the status of proposed projects.

A city entity charged with allocating $122 million in Recovery Zone Facility Bonds regularly announced preliminary approvals and held public hearings on projects but left New Yorkers in the dark when deals fell through according to new report released today by Good Jobs New York. The report: Kept in the Dark: Poor Reporting on New York City’s Recovery Zone Bond Deals exposes a confusing and un-transparent process that prevents New Yorkers from holding companies accountable for job creation. The report is available at www.goodjobsny.org.

“Despite historical changes in subsidy disclosure at all levels of government as part of the Recovery Act, the Recovery Zone Facility Bond Program fell dramatically short,” said Bettina Damiani director of Good Jobs New York and an author of the report.  “GJNY spent countless hours breaking down the byzantine approval process to determine which projects received these special bonds when basic details should be at every New Yorker’s fingertips.”

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Bondholders of Yankee Stadium Garage Bonds Get Extra Innings

March 25, 2011

The April 1 deadline for the Bronx Parking Development Corporation to get its act together is no prank. Thanks to a glut of parking space at the new – subsidized to the hilt – Yankee Stadium, the parking garages, also subsidized to the hilt, have gone so unused the owners are struggling to pay its bondholders. It was widely reported that the $237 million in private activity bonds to finance the garage were going to default at the end of next week. However, today Juan Gonzalez at the Daily News reports that directors at the firm agreed to dip into its debt reserves (again) to pay the bondholders as well changes to its operations, like getting approval for expenses from an appointee chosen by the bondholders.
 
We can’t say New Yorkers didn’t see this coming.

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Report Documents Proof of Low-wage Employment at NYC Subsidized Projects

March 11, 2011

This week, Good Jobs New York, along with the Fiscal Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project, released a report highlighting how New York City economic development policies often support low-wage jobs. The policy brief An Overview of Job Quality and Discretionary Economic Development Subsidies in New York City, describes the variety of subsidies and jobs at three well-known projects: Yankee Stadium, Gateway Mall in the Bronx and the Queens warehouse of Fresh Direct, an on-line grocery store.

Yesterday, the findings of the report were discussed at a forum at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center for Worker Education.

Data to estimate the wages at firms came from various sources including public records, government wage data and field interviews.

Together, the projects analyzed in the brief won tens of millions of dollars in benefits from the City, but because there are no job quality standards attached to employment at the projects, many jobs pay remarkably low wages.  Of the 4,909 jobs studied (concession food and beverage workers, warehouse workers, retail salespersons, security guards, and cashiers) the estimated annual median pay ranged from $17,534 to $26,395 for a full-time worker. Ironically this is only 58 percent to 87 percent, respectively, of the Bloomberg administration’s own 2008 poverty threshold for a four-person family in New York City. Security guards, representing about 563 of the jobs nearly 5,000 jobs studied, earned the highest wages at $12.69 an hour.

Cashiers working full-time in the retail industry (a rarity as a business that depends on part-timers) earn approximately $17,500 a year. The prevalence of low wage employment continues at the controversial, heavily subsidized new Yankee Stadium where seasonal jobs are the norm; starting wages there are estimated to be $9.19 an hour. Of the over 1,200 employees working in a Queens warehouse for Fresh Direct, the starting wage was typically the legal minimum.

Obtaining the data for the report (originally released last May and updated with new data) was a daunting task. Transparency about how discretionary subsidies are allocated has improved greatly over the years. But as the report states, the city falls flat on providing data enabling New Yorkers to determine the quality of jobs at subsidized projects.

Subsidy News Whirlwind Hits NYC

December 9, 2010

New York City is ending 2010 with a subsidy transparency bang. In addition to transparency reforms around public hearings at the New York City Industrial Development Agency passed by its board in September, this week Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill, spearheaded by Council Member Diana Reyna, establishing broad changes to how New York City reports on company specific discretionary deals. Starting in 2012 New Yorkers will:

  • Have access to details on projects for the life of a deal. Currently details on projects approved before 2005 were only made available for the first seven years. Now information on the largest deals that occurred in the 1990’s and early 2000’s won’t slip out of the public’s view;
  • Be able to analyze data in an electronic format (like Excel) on the web. A regular concern voiced by GJNY over the years has been the lack of access to IDA data. While the company-specific information currently available on the EDCs website in PDF format is useful it’s impossible to truly analyze over 500 pages worth of deals without having electronic access to the data within it;
  • Know the value of land sales. When NYC sells city-owned property taxpayers should know how much it was sold for. For community members and fiscal watchdogs, knowing if property was sold at or below market rate can be a critical bit of information for analysis and/or community organizing.

And topping it off, this week the Fiscal Policy Institute released a report summarizing the value of economic development subsidies in New York State and there’s a new national state-wide subsidy tracker and other useful tools from Good Jobs First.

Of course, all these new data means there’s more work to do. Expect 2011 to be very busy year.

Pfizer Pays Up

December 8, 2010

Yesterday, Bloomberg News reported pharmaceutical giant Pfizer paid New York City $24.7 million for subsidies it used along with a penalty, for failing to live up to promises made in a $46 million corporate retention package awarded by the Industrial Development Agency in 2003.

While this is indeed welcomed news, it’s diminished by the fact that the subsidy package should never have happened in the first place.

As GJNY testified at a hearing before the subsidy was awarded, Pfizer is a mainstay of Manhattan’s East Side and didn’t need taxpayer’s money to expand its offices. Others, angry at Pfizer’s drug policies concerning distribution of drugs to poor people and those with HIV and AIDS, were offended that public money would go to the pharma giant’s real estate pursuits. To top it off, in June of 2003, an executive was quoted in Crain’s New York saying the firm never planned to leave the city.

While details are sketchy, we assume the company fell out of favor with the city after closing its Brooklyn plant in 2007 where it’s been since the mid 1800’s and when word got out about reductions in its workforce and Manhattan office space. The Pfizer deal, while egregious, shows that the Bloomberg Administration allows for strong recapture (compared to his predecessor Rudy Giuliani) especially in the very early years of a deal; the city can demand 100% repayment and penalties for job losses before June 2011. Though the city’s handling of the MetLife deal shows recapture provisions aren’t always equally enforced.

The city, as of yet, hasn’t put out a press release detailing where the Pfizer deal went array, but it shouldn’t be shy about holding companies accountable.

Finally, Subsidies are Sexy in New York City

November 17, 2010

National retailers get it. Commercial office towers in Midtown Manhattan get it. But nothing seems to have grabbed the attention of New Yorkers like subsidies for strip clubs. Last week, Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News revealed – in true tabloid form on the paper’s front page – that a handful of strip clubs benefit from the Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program.

The Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program (ICIP) program provides property tax breaks to companies that construct or renovate property in most areas of New York City. For years GJNY has urged officials to rethink this program. Then, thanks mostly to a 2008 report by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office, ICIP was reauthorized as the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program or ICAP in 2008. Now utilities are exempt and benefits for some retailers and property owners in parts of Midtown and Lower Manhattan are have been reduced for future applicants.

But even with these reforms the program has moved far from its 1970’s original intent to help manufacturers expand in the outer boroughs, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. “This is one of the weirdest exemption programs ever devised,” Borough President Stringer told the Daily News after learning about the strip club subsidies.

Additional proof that the program has been watered down, beneficiaries not only include Penthouse Executive Club west of Times Square and Starlets Gentleman’s Club in Queens but also office buildings on Park and Fifth Avenues and several luxury hotels.

ICAP is up for renewal by the New York State legislature next year. These revelations will most assuredly mean a new set of eyes on this subsidy program and hopefully lead to more substantial reforms.

New York City Industrial Development Agency Establishes Landmark Transparency Reforms

September 25, 2010

This week New York City leapt to the front of the transparency pack with reforms to its Industrial Development Agency (IDA) that will improve taxpayer awareness of and participation in proposed economic development deals.

New Yorkers have spent years advocating for a more inclusive and transparent process around high profile proposals like Yankee Stadium, Kingsbridge Armory, Albee Square, Reuters America, Recovery Zone Facility Bonds (via IDA’s sister entity the Capital Resource Corporation), and post 9/11 Liberty Bonds.

The reforms are key to helping New Yorkers engage in a process that has been difficult terrain for those wanting to offer suggests that would improve, support or opposed IDA proposals, which grants discretionary tax-breaks and tax-free financing to companies that pledge to remain in New York City. 

Of the more than 100 IDAs across the state, which have come under fire over the few years and most recently from the State Comptroller and New York Jobs with Justice, the NYC IDA is now clearly the most transparent.

These improvements, while certainly a step in the right direction, do not solve every problem. For example: The public should have online access to applications and cost/benefit materials of proposed deals 30 days in advance of public hearings, not 12 days. We also recommend that webcasts of hearings and meetings remain on the agency’s website longer than three days. That said there’s plenty of good news:

  • The value of other non-IDA discretionary and as-of-right benefits will be included in the project materials. This isn’t the same as a citywide unified economic development budget, but for the first time it creates a more comprehensive picture of the multiple subsidies going to a particular project;
  • Applications and the IDA’s cost/benefit application will be available 12 business days in advance of public hearings; and
  • Meetings between applicants and staff at the IDA’s compliance division will happen in advance of approval to ensure a firm understands what its commitments are in exchange for the subsidies.

The New York City Industrial Development Agency is becoming an example of how other economic development agencies around New York State – indeed the Nation – can and should engage the public.

NYC “Wins” JetBlue Headquarters

March 29, 2010

Last week the airline JetBlue declared New York City the winner in a relocation contest against Orlando, Florida. The airline said it will move 880 employees from its current headquarters in Forest Hills, Queens to Long Island City, also in the borough.

The announcement however, seems premature as a public hearing – a necessary step in securing some of the subsidies – hasn’t been scheduled. This makes us wonder, how rock solid is this deal? And remarkably absent from the Mayor’s press release is any mention of the total value of the subsidies the airline anticipates; Good Jobs New York has learned it is approximately $30 million. In addition to retaining its current jobs, JetBlue is expected to transfer 70 jobs from Connecticut and expand its staff by 130 at its new location, the Brewster Building (the location of an ill-fated subsidy deal). Included in the subsidy deal is the right for JetBlue planes to bear the iconic I (heart) NY logo.

This proposal conjures up ghosts of corporate retention deals past:

  • No public hearing announcement.
  • Minimal details: No Memorandum of Understanding between the airline and the city detailing the proposal has been made public. Did the city conduct a cost/benefit analysis showing that these incentives are a wise investment?   If so, how will the city ensure that the company creates and retains the jobs it promised? JetBlue officials report it conducted an “exhaustive” study that led the company to make its location decision, will the airline make that study public?
  • Previous tax-payer investment: The airline already benefits from tax-free bonds that helped build its impressive new terminal at JFK airport and is one of the busiest carriers there.  JetBlue is also benefiting from the upgrade to one of JFK runways (financed by the Port Authority, Federal Aviation Administration and funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) and is expected ease its notorious delays and improving service for the airline.

If there’s an upshot, it is that the Bloomberg Administration changed the game, albeit slightly from the days of Mayor Giuliani, by incorporating job creation rather than just retention into subsidy deals. Yet, it has been less than stellar in holding large companies accountable – Pfizer and Metropolitan Life Insurance, for example – and in leveraging subsidies for new jobs at the new Yankee Stadium.  

The ability to make this deal transparent and accountable is up to the Mayor. There’s still time, and it seems even some of those on Wall Street are looking for some answers.

In the Bronx, could a loss lead to a win?

October 22, 2009

blogphotokara2No, it’s not baseball, it’s NYC’s land use process. This week, the New York City Department of City Planning voted 8 to 4 in favor of a plan to develop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a mall, even though the deal lacks a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). So why are supporters of creating a CBA optimistic?

In New York City, where heads of commissions and board leaders are predominantly mayoral appointees, rarely is there dissent or even serious questions raised about proposed projects. But years of organizing and learning the ins and outs of development policy by members of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA) have put officials on a bumpy ride. “No” votes from Planning Commission members representing Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and the city’s Public Advocate (there was one recusal from a Mayoral appointee) opens up significant leverage for organizers as the project needs final approval from City Council members in those boroughs.

With the strong backing of the relatively new Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and a unique showing of labor support – including the retail workers, building trades, Central Labor Council, teachers and SEIU 32BJ – KARA is in a strong position to push for CBA negotiations with Related Companies even though the developer is not required to participate in such talks.

“We are not asking for anything radical or extreme. We are simply asking that, in a borough that has the highest poverty rate in the nation and has consistently seen the highest unemployment numbers in New York State, Related and their future tenants provide living wage jobs with benefits that allow Bronxites a chance to provide for their families and to build a better life,” said Diaz.

As the project winds its way through the City Council for the final phase of approvals, KARA and the Bronx Borough President hope that the developer who wants to develop “Shops at the Armory” (with tens of millions of dollars of subsidies, a rock-bottom purchase price of $5 million for the landmarked building and the benefit of a $30 million new roof thanks to New York City taxpayers) will come to the negotiating table.

Considering that massive development projects in New York City, and the Bronx in particular (think Yankee Stadium, Gateway Mall, Croton Water Filtration Plant), have been easily approved without real community benefits, KARA is ahead of the curve and could shepherd in the first real CBA in the Big Apple.

Smoke and Mirrors on the Hudson (updated)

October 16, 2009

HudsonRiver_Small_021708051148This week, real estate pundits anointed New Jersey the winner when Depository Trust and Clearing Corp (DTCC) rejected a benefits package from New York City and took New Jersey up on its $80 million  nearly $90  million offer of tax breaks to move 1,600 jobs across the Hudson River. The firm, a major clearing house for securities, will keep 700 front office jobs at its Lower Manhattan headquarters.

But did New Jersey really have to fork over all those subsidies? As reported, DTCC claims it didn’t make the decision to move based solely on tax breaks. It’s well known that the business basics of transportation, appropriate space, workforce and access to customers are key in a location decision; without them tax breaks won’t make a difference.

Sadly, when two locations have what a firm needs, site consultants and firms send cities into a competitive frenzy of tax breaks and subsidy offers. But because bidding wars happen behind closed doors, no one knows what the proposals entailed.

New York officials responded, “We’d like all of its operations to be here, but we’d rather use scarce taxpayer dollars to invest in our future than engage in a reckless bidding war with New Jersey.” New York City did engage in negotiations for over a year but DTCC went where many back-office jobs have gone over the years – Jersey City where commercial rents are cheaper.

A startling fact revealed by New Jersey Policy Perspective is that almost $12 million of the $80 million of tax breaks are expected to come from a program not yet fully created much less approved by officials. The bulk of the incentives would come from New Jersey’s Business Employment Incentive Program, (BEIP) which mandate certain job standards. Disturbingly, New York City’s discretionary subsidies are void of any job standards. This should be a wake up call to the Bloomberg Administration that job standards aren’t job killers and start including them in its economic development subsidy deals.

These negotiations are reminiscent of the battles waged between New York City and New Jersey in the 1990’s. You’d think successful businessmen like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine would recognize that playing the bidding game doesn’t benefit anyone but the real estate industry.