The work of the Industrial Development Agency came under intense scrutiny during last year’s elections. The IDA, its executive director and board members were criticized in these pages and elsewhere for giving out scores of property tax abatements to big box stores and international corporations that didn’t need such help — and the breaks were putting an undue burden on the rest of us. Or so the narrative went.
We now find the narrative not to be entirely true. At this time, there are no big box stores in Riverhead Town that receive tax abatements, we report this week. And although names like Hilton and Marriott adorn two projects that received some form of IDA benefits, the hotels themselves are owned by a local businessman who makes a strong case for the economic benefits they bring to town in the form of visitors’ spending time here, and therefore money. When it was built, Tanger Outlets received IDA assistance on sales tax only, and not property tax breaks, and it’s now the town’s highest taxpayer — contributing more than $4 million a year.
To sum up staff writer Tim Gannon’s reporting, the total amount of taxes that will be “lost” in 2014 comes in at $1.68 million.
That seems like a small price to pay for bringing economic development and jobs to the Enterprise Park at Calverton, helping establish recreational opportunities in the form of a bowling alley on Route 25 and rebuilding a downtown with a hotel and aquarium, a renovated theater and dozens of new stores and apartments. Consider also that, according to IDA executive director Tracy Stark-James, the total assessed value of the 18 properties currently receiving property tax breaks in town was about $2.4 million before the IDA incentives were granted.
Those assessed values now total $18.3 million. One day those taxes will be paid in full.
These are long-term investments, not designed to be the easiest of pills for taxpayers to swallow now.
And it seems the IDA board is picking worthy projects to support.
There is room for improvements, especially when it comes to transparency on the IDA’s website, riverheadida.org, which offers no detailed information as to who is getting property breaks in town, for how much and when those breaks are scheduled to fall off. This is information that should be at everyone’s fingertips. The IDA should take care to update these numbers annually; that doesn’t sound as if it should be so hard. As of now, the site’s “projects” page features only a Google map of Riverhead.
The last IDA budget uploaded to the website is from 2012 and the “corrective measures” from a 2012 financial audit are nowhere to be found.
Overall, the IDA appears to be fulfilling its mission of attracting businesses and helping existing businesses expand. But these board members are deciding where taxpayer money is being directed and the decisions they’re making need to be clear and accessible to the public.
Here’s a simple New Year’s resolution for them: Update the site.