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Here in New York, industrial development agencies (IDAs) are one of main job creation mechanisms for local communities.In 2009, IDAs gave away close to half a billion dollars in tax breaks to companies in the name of economic development.IDAs are known as "public benefit corporations" - they're supposed to help their local communities, and create jobs.But in their four decades of existence, they've been accused of everything from failing to comply with state laws, to simply being inefficient.You can follow the Innovation Trail's investigation into how IDAs spend your tax dollars by subscribing to the RSS feed on the right.

Erie County's "jobs czar" digs in

Daniel Robison
Boosting job training programs and reforming Erie County's six IDAs are top priorities of deputy county executive Richard Tobe.

During Mark Poloncarz’s successful campaign for Erie County executive, the Democrat promised to take drastic steps to improve the county’s economy. Part of realizing that vision included hiring a deputy.

That man - Richard Tobe - was to also act as his so-called “jobs czar.”

In need of “major change”

It’s not quite déjà vu, but Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe has been in county government before. He’s also worked for the city of Buffalo, and as a law professor focused on economic development.

To say he’s familiar with local politics is an understatement.

“There really is a need for a major change in the way we approach economic development,” Tobe says.

Tobe’s charge is the fulfillment of campaign promises by Poloncarz, who used an economic message last fall to help pull off an unlikely victory against his better-funded opponent, Chris Collins.

Since then, Tobe says the climate in Erie County has changed, with more than $1.1 billion in state aid pledged to Buffalo and the county.

“It’s an extraordinary statement of both confidence in us, but also the demonstration of a great challenge,” Tobe says. “We ourselves have to earn that.”

The money is not guaranteed.

Rather, it’s contingent on local leaders crafting a compelling pitch to state officials and local business leaders. This responsibility, coupled with pledges by Poloncarz to take drastic steps to boost the local economy, means voters will be on the lookout for a long-term plan that fills these needs and, ultimately, creates jobs.

But first, Tobe says the county can help job growth by addressing the lack of qualifications among local workers.

“We’ve really fleshed out that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs available here that are going unfilled,” Tobe says. “Hence, there’s a mismatch.”

These positions are mostly in manufacturing and advanced manufacturing. So the administration wants to improve the output of the 12-year old Buffalo & Erie County Workforce Incentive Board, which is responsible for partnering with the private sector to supply job training needs.

“Our goal is to see that the money that we have - and it turns out there’s a lot - goes further, and more importantly, links into the real opportunities that exist in this economy,” Tobe says.

Part of the problem is that local educational institutions, like Erie Community College (ECC), are at capacity.

And while ECC wants to build a new structure in Amherst that could alleviate this issue, the Poloncarz administration has effectively delayed the project, asking for a study of the building’s best uses and location.

The study likely won’t like be done until next year - meaning a best case scenario for construction means the building won’t open until 2014. Critics say it’s hardly a solution for job openings that need to be filled now.

And that’s not the only initiative that’s garnered controversy.

Uphill battle for IDA reform

Another administration plank is the reform of local Industrial Development Agencies (IDAs).

“That was a campaign promise of the county executive” Tobe says of boss Polonocarz. “We’ve been working on it quite hard.”

IDAs provide tax breaks for businesses to expand or move. Tobe says because Erie County has six IDAs, while most counties have just one, that too many tax dollars are being waived for businesses like liquor stores, donut shops and car dealerships.

Tobe helped write a law that could be introduced in Albany soon that would severely limit town IDAs from abating county and state taxes.

“They want to use their own money? They can do so,” Tobe says. “But they can’t give out somebody else’s money. That belongs to the county and to all the other communities in Erie County.”

But that idea has met sharp resistance from some, and its time window for passing this year in Albany is closing by the day.

Still, Tobe says the administration intends to keep its promises - and is adamant that it has the time and political clout to do so.

Meanwhile, Tobe’s painting as positive a picture of Erie County as he can. There’s no other option, he says.

“If we badmouth it, what are outsiders going to think?

“We know we’ve got problems,” Tobe says. “There are problems everywhere. And not every place focuses on their problems. We do too much of it.”

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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