Government Affairs event brings important economic development topics to the forefront of the county executive race.
With the 2019 general election just a month away, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership hosted an Erie County Executive Candidates Forum featuring incumbent Mark Poloncarz and challenger Lynne Dixon as part of our final Government Affairs event of the year.
Moderated by David Robinson, Deputy Business Editor at The Buffalo News, the nonpartisan forum focused on Erie County’s budget, the region’s economy, and future economic challenges and opportunities for Buffalo Niagara.
“It is important to point out this is not a debate,” Dottie Gallagher, the Partnership’s President and CEO, said in opening the forum. “This is an exclusive opportunity for our members to clearly hear the candidates themselves express their positions as they relate to economic development and the future of our business community.”
The forum was divided into two parts in which the candidates individually answered the same questions posed by Robinson, with Dixon speaking first, followed by Poloncarz. Dixon is currently the District 9 representative on the Erie County Legislature and is running for county executive on the Republican party ticket. Poloncarz has served as Erie County Executive since 2012 and is running for another term on the Democratic party ticket.
To recap the forum, here are some of the questions asked by the moderator followed by a brief summary of each candidate’s response.
Erie County recently released its proposed budget for 2020 in which overall spending would increase 1.7% and the property tax levy would increase by 3.5%. Can you give us your thoughts on the proposal and whether it is good for local business?
Dixon: It is always a challenge for our business community when spending and the tax levy increases, especially in a highly-taxed state such as New York. So I don’t think that is good news. There are cost issues that come before the county that are the result of actions at the state level that impact the budget, often costing millions of dollars. At the same time, the Erie County budget has grown more than $200 million over the past eight years. In terms of the business community, that is not a good thing.
Poloncarz: In this budget, which is still subject to the legislature, the tax rate has gone down. Tax levy growth is not a bad thing if we are talking about new assessments and new properties being added to the combined tax rolls. As a result, the budget should reduce the tax burden across the board, including businesses. In the budget proposal, we gave examples of three comparable middle class houses in Buffalo, Tonawanda, and West Seneca. Based on an analysis done by our tax office, these homes will actually see a tax cut, not just a tax rate cut. Their county taxes will go down in 2020 compared to this year.
We hear a lot of talk about the renaissance in Buffalo Niagara, evidenced by such things as increased property values and the success of such initiatives as adaptive reuse projects. However, on the other side, our job growth rate is lower than that of other cities. Are we business friendly and what can we do to build on all the positives while making it even better?
Dixon: I do not think we are business friendly. As an example, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency (ECIDA) has recently become very aggressive with clawback provisions of tax breaks or other incentives should a company fail to meet job creation projections. Local businesses have taken a chance on this community, investing here, working to grow here, and sometimes they face tremendous challenges. They have shown their commitment to this community and we have to show our commitment back by making sure we are not punishing them due to circumstances beyond their control.
Poloncarz: Yes. There has been tremendous job creation here. Since January 2012, there have been 39,900 new jobs created in Erie County. My goal is to continue to work hard on workforce development and ensure we leave no one behind. As for clawback provisions, they are required by New York State as loan funds include state and federal dollars. I believe the public has the right to know and we work to follow the state requirements without compromising the local business climate.
We noted our job growth rate is below the national average, yet local companies have job openings they cannot fill because of a lack of qualified candidates. What can we do to close the skills gap and help companies fill those jobs?
Dixon: First, we need to partner with local educational institutions such as Erie Community College and the University at Buffalo to help us provide the training these jobs require. We also need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining workers here by promoting the area as a great place to work and live. This includes a broad message of all the benefits including close proximity to entertainment and recreation and international border and cultural activities… all with a reasonable cost of living.
Poloncarz: We need to constantly work on workforce development and work together to address the issues that affect the job seekers. These include transportation—a candidate may be well qualified for a job but has no way to get there. Or they can find a job but now need childcare in order to work. Solutions include working with the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA) to increase bus routes and increasing the eligibility for child care assistance programs.
Do we invest enough in tourism in Buffalo Niagara and what can we do to capitalize on all that we have to offer visitors? How does the hotel bed tax fit in?
Dixon: We need a bigger, more targeted effort for tourism including an increase in the bed tax to benefit Visit Buffalo Niagara. On top of showcasing everything here—from Canalside to Niagara Falls—we need to partner with others. For example, working with the NFTA to bring more direct flights to Buffalo, making it more convenient for visitors as well as business travelers.
Poloncarz: In the proposed 2020 budget, we have budgeted for $11.6 million in hotel bed tax. And we have $3.6 million allotted for Visit Buffalo Niagara. The county owns the convention center, which is related to tourism, and we are slated to provide $1.8 million for it. The county also funds arts and cultural institutions such as the zoo and history and science museums, each a driver of tourism. Combine all this, and it comes to $12.1 million. We are actually spending more on tourism than we bring in with the hotel bed tax.
What are your thoughts on a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills and can the county afford to be involved?
Dixon: There are a lot of big ticket items in addition to the stadium that have been under discussion, from removing the skyway to building a new Peace Bridge. Obviously, we cannot afford all of them. We need to look at what works best for our residents and how a new stadium fits in. The stadium in Orchard Park is unique and the Pegulas have made a strong commitment to our community, already investing millions in the existing stadium. It will come down to what burden all involved are willing to bear, from the owners to the county and state and perhaps most importantly, the taxpayers.
Poloncarz: The Pegulas are finishing a report on whether it’s best to renovate the existing stadium or build a new stadium, including the location. They will share engineering and architectural information and we will have a chance to review the report. We have a strong agreement in place already to keep the Buffalo Bills here and will have to negotiate any involvement with the owners depending on the direction they choose. Stadiums are not good economic development drivers and the best ROI comes from the income taxes on the players. But we want the stadium and team here for the positive impact they have on the entire community.
The Partnership would like to thank Lynne Dixon and Mark Poloncarz for their participation in our forum, and we thank David Robinson for his thoughtful moderation. Our thanks also go out to our forum sponsors who made this important event for our members possible.
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