Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks gave her final State of the County address
last night — and she sneaked a couple of bits of news into it.
For one, the county finally has a buyer for the Gateway and Atrium buildings on East Main Street downtown. CGI Communications, a marketing company located next door in the Granite Building, will purchase the properties to expand its business. The county has been trying to sell the properties since the Renaissance Square project fell apart in 2009, and has repeatedly included the sale in its budgets. Brooks didn't say how much CGI is paying for the properties.
Brooks also gave a welcome to Joel Frater, who is the new executive dean of MCC's Damon City Campus. He'll lead the transition from the current city campus at the Sibley building to the new campus in former Kodak offices on State Street.
But for the most part, Brooks' speech followed the same basic formula as her 10 previous State of the County addresses. She emphasized collaboration, such as local governments working together to save costs or the county's partnerships with companies such as Waste Management, which has a contract to operate the county's recycling center and Mill Seat Landfill.
As she spoke to the audience at Irondequoit High School, which seemed considerably smaller than at her previous addresses, Brooks talked about her relationship with Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. Brooks said that she's worked with five mayors during her tenure and that she's had strong partnerships with all of them. "But I must admit," she said, "the ability to work well with Mayor Lovely Warren has been unique and productive."
That partnership grew out of Warren's efforts to secure County Legislature votes to clear the way for Costco to build at CityGate, Brooks said. But it has continued through other efforts, she said, including the ongoing Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.
Brooks also touted the county's financial position. When she took office in 2004, the county had no money in its savings account, she said, and was searching for quick revenues to plug budget gaps.The county now has $20 million in reserves, she said, and ended 2014 with a $9-million surplus.
But after the speech, Legislature Democratic Minority Leader Carrie Andrews said that Brooks isn't leaving the county on sound financial footing. She noted that the county has elected to defer pension payments which, with interest, will amount to $60 million that taxpayers will have to repay down the line.
She also noted that Brooks didn't speak to the county's local development corporations, some of which have been at the center of an alleged bid-rigging scheme. Brooks has been a staunch defender of LDC's throughout her tenure, but her possible successor, Republican County Clerk Cheryl Dinolfo, has pledged to eliminate LDC's, which may explain why Brooks ignored them in her speech.
And, as she does every year, Brooks defended the work of the Monroe County Industrial Development Agency. Since 2004, the agency has assisted 1,500 growing or new companies — assistance which has generated or retained 110,000 jobs, Brooks said. Approximately $245 million in incentives has generated a $963-million return, she said. And Brooks said that she regularly talks to executives who tell her that incentives matter because they level the playing field "in our highly taxed and over-regulated state."
COMIDA, she said, has been "an acronym praised and vilified by area naysayers and in our local media, where failure is showcased and success ignored."
But Brooks' defense misstates the issue. Is the media critical of COMIDA at times? Absolutely. But the agency makes decisions that ultimately affect taxpayers and can have a profound effect — good and bad — on other local businesses.
There are projects where incentives are good or necessary. Take the recent incentives awarded to Three Heads Brewery, which is building a brewery, tasting room, and distribution facility on Atlantic Avenue. The company is locally-owned, plans to create around a dozen jobs, and is investing in a property that's been unused for two decades. COMIDA has also supported expansions at quite a few locally-owned manufacturing firms — companies which provide decent jobs to residents and whose owners often spend their profits locally.
But COMIDA routinely awards incentives for luxury housing projects, retail development, and other market-driven businesses. COMIDA granted substantial property and sales tax incentives to the College Town development on Mt. Hope Avenue, for example, which has filled up mostly with chain restaurants and retail. These businesses compete with locally-owned stores and restaurants, and their profits go to their out-of-town corporate parents.