Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature program to revive the long-stalled upstate economy, the scandal-plagued “Buffalo Billion,” has yet to produce promised jobs and was marred oversight failures that allowed tax dollars to flow to lightly vetted firms, a state audit has found.
The blistering findings came in an audit released Friday by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office and raise doubts over whether the much-touted attempts to build technology hubs in central and western New York will live up to their original promise.
“Despite millions of dollars of state funding, selected high-tech projects have yet to create the expected number of jobs,” the Comptroller’s report determined.
“While these projects still have time to meet their total job commitments, it is unclear whether such goals will be met, given that much work remains to yield the overall employment and investment targets — in some cases, years after construction has been completed.”
The “Buffalo Billion” projects were initially overseen by a longtime Cuomo aide, Alain Kaloyeros, through an arm of the State University of New York system that operated with little oversight.
Kaloyeros was convicted and sentenced to 3 1/2 years for his role in a bid-rigging scheme involving the economic development effort — which reached Cuomo’s innermost circle.
The governor’s former right-hand, Joe Percoco, was also convicted, as was the developer who built the Buffalo plant.
The SUNY operation was eventually merged into another Cuomo-controlled entity, the Empire State Development Corporation.
The DiNapoli audit singled out one of Cuomo’s highest-profile projects for particular scorn: Solar City, the $750 million taxpayer-funded solar panel manufacturing plant built for eccentric Tesla billionaire Elon Musk.
The facility had hired just 800 of the more-than 1,400 promised employees by 2018, DiNapoli determined. The IBM-led Buffalo IT Hub also fell well short of targets, with 200 of the originally promised 500 jobs actually created.
The comptroller’s review also determined that state officials failed to do their due diligence before hopping into bed with Musk’s SolarCity.
“Despite the state’s significant investment, ESD’s assessment included only a single-page company profile on SolarCity (the company that acquired Silevo, the original anchor tenant of RiverBend) and a memo on the financial situation” of the state division overseeing the project, DiNapoli’s office reported.
However, even from the limited amount of homework that was done on the project, there was evidence state officials knew they were getting a bum deal.
An analysis of the project’s costs and benefits reviewed by DiNapoli revealed that the state would only net 54 cents in “economic benefit” for every dollar spent — a mere fraction of the usual $30 return that each dollar typically yields.
And it found that state officials failed to assess the risks that would accompany the project.
The “lack of due diligence raises concerns that, prior to awarding hundreds of millions of dollars, no real scrutiny of these projects is done, increasing the risk that projects will not fulfill publicized high-tech job and private investment goals,” DiNapoli’s staff found.
Cuomo’s office declined to comment on the audit and referred questions to ESD.
“This audit confirms what is already known: all ESD expenditures were made appropriately, and until a global pandemic shuttered companies worldwide, not a single company within the portfolio had missed an annual investment or job creation commitment,” claimed ESD spokeswoman Kristin Devoe.