Some of New York's biggest emitters are top beneficiaries of local tax breaks. Maia Hibbett
The state wants to phase out fossil fuels. Localities have given over a billion dollars in tax breaks to help keep them around.
By Colin Kinniburgh and Julia Rock

On a crisp evening last spring, nearly 100 people packed into an elementary school auditorium in the Hudson Valley town of Athens. They had shown up to weigh in on the future of the town’s largest taxpayer and recipient of one of the biggest property tax subsidies in New York: a natural gas power plant.

For two decades prior, the Athens Generating Plant had received tax breaks averaging roughly $25 million a year. But that deal was about to expire, and its owners argued that without the abatement, the plant might be forced to close. They were looking to renew.

 Across the state, IDAs enter into payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements, or PILOTs, with businesses, exempting the corporations from property taxes in exchange for a lower annual payment to the town, county, and school district and the promise of job creation. And these little-known local authorities are quietly shaping the economics of the energy transition, in some cases threatening to undermine the state’s climate goals.

The federal infrastructuere law will deliver New York nearly $6 billion in “flexible funds” that are earmarked for highways but can be spent on transit instead. BeyondImages
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directed billions toward public transit in New York, but the state is choosing to spend billions more on highways.
By Sam Mellins

President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a centerpiece of his first term — and a huge windfall for New York. The state is expected to receive $36 billion from the law to upgrade its transportation system, a once-in-a-generation gift.

Biden hailed the 2021 law as a chance to “transform our transportation system” and “turn the climate crisis into an opportunity.” Much of the money was dedicated to public transit and will fund marquee projects like the Second Avenue Subway expansion. But a giant pot was left to states to decide how to spend — either on maintaining and widening roads, or, with federal sign-off, on climate-friendly infrastructure like subways, trains, and sidewalks.

So far, Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration has overwhelmingly chosen the former.

Have you or somebody you know applied to a Conviction Integrity or Conviction Review Unit in New York to fight a wrongful conviction?

New York Focus and Columbia Journalism Investigations are taking a look at how these units work—and we’d like to hear from you.

In 2020, the Ulster County IDA granted millions of dollars in tax breaks to a proposed luxury development in downtown Kingston. The deal sparked public outcry. Chris Boswell
The county is ready to restart real estate subsidies after a two-year pause. Residents fear it won't fix their housing crisis.
By Arabella Saunders

Tim Rogers wouldn’t lose any sleep if someone told him the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency had ceased to exist.

For a decade, the village of New Paltz mayor has railed against tax breaks the agency doles out to businesses and real estate developers. Rogers penned his eighth letter on the subject in December, when the agency lifted its 27-month moratorium on subsidies for housing projects.

The industrial development agency had a history of handing out subsidies that were unpopular with residents. The moratorium was meant to buy the IDA time to develop a housing policy that better aligned with community needs, which many residents say includes affordable housing. The process was underway — agency board members had started drafting after a year of studying the policies of other IDAs — when the moratorium was suddenly lifted. Soon after, two board members, both of whom were in favor of ending subsidies to market rate housing developers, resigned.

Governor Kathy Hochul speaks at a Long Island development announcement on January 18, 2024. Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Her administration says the fund won’t be harmed. Legal experts question whether she can take it at all.
By Sam Mellins

One measure in Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal has united the state’s judicial system, legal community, and some legislators against it: an attempt to take $100 million from a low-income legal services fund — and move it into the state’s general cash pool.

Each year, the Interest on Lawyer Account, or IOLA, fund, provides tens of millions of dollars to fund legal help for New Yorkers who can’t afford it. According to the fund’s director, Hochul’s budget proposal would remove about a third of the cash it has available, imperiling its financial health.

Unlike criminal defendants, civil defendants and plaintiffs aren’t guaranteed the right to an attorney, so the fund covers legal aid in hundreds of thousands of civil cases a year. With the fund now under threat, legal organizations that benefit from its grants warn they may have to cut services.

When the state legislature makes a law that your neighborhood doesn’t like, what should you do?

New York Focus senior reporter Sam Mellins shared how one well-connected group got its wealthy neighborhood excluded from a statewide law with Radio Catskill. 

Statewide union officials were in Albany on Wednesday asking lawmakers to stop local economic development agencies from draining school funding through corporate tax breaks. Arabella Saunders
When local authorities hand out subsidies, school budgets lose revenue. The state teachers union is now pushing back.
By Arabella Saunders

New York schools are losing out on millions of dollars because of an arcane local funding mechanism for corporate subsidies. Now, the fight against this tool has some powerful new supporters: labor unions. On Wednesday, good government groups, legislators, a local development authority board member, and their latest allies from the statewide teachers union and the AFL-CIO gathered in Albany to urge the state to stop the bleeding.

Anne Wiegard asked: I would like to know the extent to which the 2024 budget reflects the proposals of the higher education unions (UUP and PSC, backed by NYSUT) for funding SUNY and CUNY more fully. For decades the state has grossly underfunded these institutions (especially SUNY’s public teaching hospitals) and its programs and the SUNY and CUNY administrations don’t aggressively advocate for funding as they should do.

This is a timely question, given that the legislature held its higher education budget hearing today. But you heard it here first: New York’s higher ed unions are most certainly asking for more money.

Governor Hochul’s executive budget proposes to increase its operating budget for SUNY campuses by $54 million and CUNY by $36 million, while keeping the number of full-time faculty in both systems flat. In both cases, staff unions say the resources fall short of what they need.

The PSC, the CUNY staff union, is demanding an additional $1.29 billion on top of the $5.8 billion total the governor has proposed — most of which would go toward its proposal of making the first 60 college credits free for students and hiring enough new full-time faculty to maintain a 15-to-one professor-student ratio. The PSC has also argued to raise the annual floor for community college funding.

The UUP, the SUNY staff union, is asking for an additional $139 million in direct campus funding and $110 million in operational funding on top of the $13.3 billion that the governor has proposed. As part of its budget response, the UUP president Fred Kowal has also rebuked SUNY’s controversial plan to close the teaching hospital at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn. —Max Parrott, New York Focus contributor


Copyright © New York Focus 2023, All rights reserved.
Staying Focused is compiled and written by Alex Arriaga
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