Governor Cuomo proposes to cut funding for brownfield program

Matt Martin
March 18, 2014

Governor Cuomo’s budget includes a little-noticed cut to one part of the state’s brownfield revitalization program. That could leave many communities who relied on the program high and dry.

On Elmira’s South Side, there are a lot of former industrial sites.

The Southside Rising Project is focused on redeveloping three of those sites. The goal is to build residential and commercial buildings on the contaminated land. But first they have to be cleaned up. And then the city can entice business investment by offering tax credits.

Jennifer Miller heads the Community Development office for the City of Elmira. Miller’s worked on the Southside Rising project since 2008. And she says they’re getting close to breaking ground.

“It’s a program that encourages implementation. And that’s kind of the phase that we could be going into," Miller says. 

But that’s not likely to happen if state funding dries up. Miller used funding from what’s known as the Brownfield Opportunity Area program to test sites for contaminants, produce drawings, and market the sites to investors. Elmira and small cities like it don’t have the resources to do this work on their own. 

Jody Kass is the Executive Director of the New Partners for Community Revitalization. She says nothing can happen in these opportunity areas without the classification from the state.

“But if the community doesn’t have the resources to become a certified BOA, which Southside Rising does not, it means that developers will look elsewhere because they’ll be able to get those resources elsewhere,” says Kass. 

So far only 12 out of 120 BOAs across the state are certified.

Larry Schanpf is an environmental lawyer. Schanpf says the governor’s decision couldn’t come at a worse time.

“And now when these BOAs are getting to the point where they are mature enough to start producing results there is no money for them,” Schanpf says. 

The Department of State, which runs the BOA program, says despite the cut, they will give advice to anyone looking for help.

The governor’s budget office says that by shifting the focus of the brownfield funding to developing individual sites, all projects will benefit. 

Schanpf says the irony of the governor’s proposal is that the tax breaks for projects in an opportunity area were increased by 5%, but without the funding, it will be impossible for a new BOA to get certified.

“So the BOA program has become essentially like the stepchild of the brownfield program,” says Schanpf. 

The entire brownfield program has always been controversial. Critics of the program say the tax breaks go to companies that don’t need them or to projects that shouldn’t qualify as brownfields.

Another problem is the discrepancy between upstate and downstate. More than half the money doled out by the program has gone to New York City or Westchester County.

Schanpf says that throwing out the BOA part of the brownfield program won’t fix any of these problems.

“One the one hand, maybe some people feel the BOA program hasn’t really worked, on the other hand, there were a lot of obstacles to it so that it was almost wasn’t working because it wasn’t designed properly," says Schanpf. "So it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling legacy.”

The state budget isn’t set in stone yet. Negotiations between the legislature and the governor started this week. The budget deadline is April 1st. Supporters of Brownfield Opportunity Areas are hoping to get the funding restored before then.