The Citizen | February 25, 2018

More than two months after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council awards announcement, details on some Cayuga County water quality improvement grants are still turbid. 

The Nature Conservancy was awarded one of the largest grants in the region at $1,124,069 and Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District was awarded $280,000 for projects in the Owasco Lake watershed. The conservation district was slated for an additional $300,000 for erosion control throughout Cayuga County. All three consolidated funding applications went through the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

A REDC 2017 publication provides a short description of the projects, but to learn more, The Citizen filed Freedom of Information requests with the DEC on Jan. 4 for the three grant applications. The DEC denied those requests, as well as subsequent appeals, citing for all three a clause of the public officer’s law that “if disclosed would impair present or imminent contract awards.”

“Consolidated Funding Applications that are approved by a Regional Economic Development Council are still subject to review and approval by the funding agency and control agencies in accordance with the State Finance Law and the applicants are required to sign a Master Grant Contract,” the DEC’s denial letter on Feb. 12 read. 

In a statement to The Citizen Friday the DEC added that the New York State Attorney General and Comptroller have to approve the contracts. The agency also has to collect proof of insurance, workers comp, disability coverage and other items from awardees, it said.

Empire State Development, which oversees the awards as a whole, reiterated that contracts are not finalized by the time of the December announcement and negotiations begin between the state agency and awardee on “the proposed state assistance.”

“Depending on the agency, program and project request, this process can take weeks or months to complete,” ESD said. “In some occasions, awards may be less than the applicant requested, and negotiations between the parties are necessary to determine project feasibility and scope; or a project is modified from its original proposal in the CFA and requires the award to be modified accordingly. Additionally, awards are contingent on the information provided by the applicant in the CFA, which often contain private and proprietary information.”

Language in the REDC book states “Central New York $86.5 million awarded to 112 projects,” and may make recipients and the public believe those funds are finalized, however.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, told The Citizen when it filed its appeal with the DEC, that if there were five entities vying for this money and no award had been made, he could understand how that could affect the negotiation process.

“But if there’s only one recipient getting the money, how can disclosure impair any sort of a process?” he said. 

Upon reviewing the DEC’s appeal denial, Freeman said the DEC did not explain how disclosure would impair present or imminent contracts, and it would be responsible for proving that should it be challenged in court.

In a statement to The Citizen Friday, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said there should be more accountability to taxpayers with the REDC process. 

“REDCs have distributed billions of dollars in grants and every nickel has come out of the pockets of hard-working New Yorkers,” he wrote. “It’s our money they’re handing out, and we have every right to know exactly how they’re doing it. The complete disregard for transparency in the state’s economic development programs is unacceptable.”

Cameron J. Macdonald, executive director and general counsel for the Government Justice Center, said the fact that there was an application period followed by an announcement makes it difficult to understand how the section of the law DEC quoted fits without giving further explanation. 

The Nature Conservancy published a press release on Dec. 20, he added, which highlights its “$1.1 million grant to protect Owasco Lake and clean drinking water in Central New York.”

“They sure think they’re getting the money,” Macdonald said. 

Jim Howe, director of the conservancy’s central and western New York chapter, spoke with The Citizen in January about the Owasco Lake funding. He said the conservancy was looking to expand its water quality work east, and plans to identify “where are the most strategic parts of the watershed that are necessary to protect and restore in order to improve water quality.”

“Our hope is we can identify some key parcels, and we’ll be talking with the owners of those parcels, and talk with owners on their future plans for the property,” he said. “We have a totally blank slate right now.”

According to the REDC’s description, the conservancy “will purchase up to six parcels in the Owasco Lake watershed for protection and potential restoration of riparian buffers and wetlands. This project will reduce sediment and nutrient loading to Owasco Lake.”

Howe had a different view from the description.

“I think for us, it’s going to be about impact rather than acreage,” he said. “We didn’t want to constrain ourselves with an acreage number or a set number of properties, so we wrote it as, ‘we’re going to figure it out.'”

Cayuga County officials knew nothing about the conservancy’s plans after the awards were announced, and speculated based on the description that parcels were going to be purchased at the southern end of Owasco Lake where the inlet is located. 

Howe was not aware that the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council and the Owasco Watershed Lake Association are working on a Nine Element Watershed Plan to map pollution sources to the lake. Officials, including OWLA and the conservation district, have identified strategic properties in the watershed with a $600,000 grant from the state and have begun implementing projects as of last year. 

Howe said the conservancy will be talking to key stakeholders in the area already working on these issues. Ultimately, he hopes, whatever is done with the funds will reduce harmful algal blooms and protect the area’s drinking water.

The conservation district’s $280,000 grant, according to the description, will go towards constructing streambank protection structures in the towns of Locke and Moravia to reduce erosion and nutrient inputs to Owasco Lake. The $300,000 grant will focus on preparing road culverts and crossings for heavy storm events throughout the county. 

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