Feb 7



Quick hits and story summaries

Welcome to Daily Post, which we’ll produce Monday through Friday, featuring short enterprise pieces and summaries of full-length stories.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Cash calls it quits

Kriner Cash has officially cashed out as Buffalo schools’ superintendent. He’s resigned after leading the district for five and a half years.

The district’s Board of Education unanimously accepted his resignation at a special work session tonight.

“Both the Board and the superintendent came to an agreement that we were going to part ways,” Board of Education President Louis Petrucci said.

The full terms of the agreement aren’t clear — “You can FOIL for it,” several members told Investigative Post — but it is effective immediately.

Tonja Williams, who served as associate superintendent of student support services under Cash, will act as interim superintendent.

Cash did not appear at the meeting, in person or virtually. He has been on leave for the past two weeks.

He often spent long stretches away from the district, but this break came as the district was dealing with a stabbing and shooting incident at McKinley High School. The incident temporarily closed the school, raised concerns over safety in schools and prompted a vote of no confidence in the superintendent by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

In addition to accepting Cash’s resignation, the Board approved a resolution to further look into the incident at McKinley and security throughout the schools.

Following the meeting Cash sent a message to the parents, teachers and community members:

“It has been my distinct privilege to serve the children and families of the Buffalo Public Schools,” he wrote. “You have a fine school system. Take full advantage of all the wonderful array of programs and services it has to offer. Best wishes for continued success!”

Cash earned more than $1.5 million in salary during his tenure with Buffalo. His salary for this school year was $311,137.

                                                                                               – Layne Dowdall

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Superintendent about to Cash out?

Signs are pointing to Kriner Cash’s resignation or removal, as soon as today, as superintendent of Buffalo schools.

Multiple sources told Investigative Post that Cash was out of the district last week, when schools were on break, and has not returned to Buffalo this week.

It’s not unusual for Cash to spend time away, as Investigative Post reported last August. What is unusual, however, is that the district is still reeling from the shooting of a security guard and the stabbing of a student at McKinley High School on Feb. 9. The school began phasing in classroom instruction Tuesday amid concerns across the district about the safety of students and faculty.

Community members called for Cash’s termination at a board meeting on Feb. 16. Cash said he’d leave “easily” if given the opportunity.

“I’m here to serve,” he said. “I’ve got a proven record, 45 years, long before I even came here. And the day that you want me gone it’s an easy decision. Board gets in a room, and they get the votes, and then we work something out.”

The day after that board meeting, the Buffalo Teachers Federation filed a vote of no confidence in Cash over the security issues.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Board of Education has scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. today. One source told Investigative Post an unspecified personnel matter will be up for discussion in executive session.

At Large Board Member Larry Scott declined to discuss the agenda Tuesday, but did tell Investigative Post: “The public will have a clear indication as to what’s happening come tomorrow’s meeting.”

Cash arrived in Buffalo in 2015 after accepting a buyout from his position as superintendent of Memphis City Schools in 2013. He currently earns $311,137.

                                                                                 – Layne Dowdall

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

State historically not a big funder of stadiums

Gov. Kathy Hochul has pledged state financing to help pay for the construction of a new stadium for the Bills. Assuming she follows through, she’ll be breaking with past practice, which has seen the state contribute only about a nickel towards every dollar spent to build or renovate major league sports venues.

Mark Scheer scrutinized the five stadium and arena projects completed in New York the past 15 years. They were all in and around New York City involving facilities for the Yankees, Mets, Islanders, Nets and Rangers/Knicks.

Those projects involved $6.4 billion of work; the state kicked in only $379 million, according to an Investigative Post analysis. Team owners picked up most of the tab; federal tax-exempt bonds and assorted subsidies from New York City and its economic development agencies covered the rest.

While Hochul supports state spending on a Bills stadium, Liz Kruger, chair of the state Senate Finance Committee, opposes a major commitment of state funds. She’s among those who say wealthy team owners can afford to pay for their stadiums.

Read the full story here.

Monday, Feb. 28, 2022

Monday Morning Reads

It’s been a long time coming, but Louis Ciminelli is finally behind bars for his involvement in the Buffalo Billion bid rigging and Alain Kaloyeros is headed there next month. They were convicted on felony corruption charges in July 2018 and have been fighting their convictions on appeal. So, they’re in prison and Andrew Cuomo, who almost certainly played some sort of role in the wrong doing, is out of his job as governor. It amounts to justice delayed, but not denied.

Mayor Byron Brown has finally gotten around to filling some of the vacancies in his administration. To no one’s surprise, he appointed Joseph Gramaglia police commissioner. Gramaglia was deputy commissioner under Byron Lockwood and essentially ran the department. We reported in October that Gramaglia and his wife had contributed $1,150 to Brown’s mayoral campaign and hosted a fundraiser at their home. Question: Does his appointment mean he’ll stop moonlighting as “officer in charge” for the Village of Blasdell’s police department?

Brown apparently filled the commissioner’s job without doing any outside job search. The mayor likewise didn’t break a sweat when he hired Lockwood, and before him, Dan Derenda. I called Mike DeGeorge, the mayor’s spokesman, several weeks ago to ask about how Brown was going about filling a number of high-level vacancies, but DeGeorge, true to form, failed to respond. Given the appointments announced Friday, including city attorney and inspections commissioner, it appears the mayor isn’t looking beyond City Hall to fill senior positions.

We Buffalonians think we’re so tough when it comes to winter. Jeff Z. Klein doesn’t think so.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has some interesting things to say about the proposed Bills stadium on The Capitol Pressroom. (Those comments start at 8:30 in the podcast.) He thinks the Pegulas should cover the lion’s share of costs and that the deal needs to receive a full public airing once it’s finalized. DiNapoli expressed the hope that a deal won’t be rushed through the approval process, which is often the way in Albany.

Political junkies take note: Ken Kruly handicaps the race for governor, complete with facts and figures.

Andrew Cuomo, apparently aching for a second act, had produced television ads that will start to air this week.

Online sports betting, legal in New York as of the first of the year, has taken off in a big and troubling way.

The producer of the Showtime documentary series on Bill Cosby talked with NPR’s Fresh Air about the good (yes, there was), bad and very, very ugly of the legendary and disgraced comedian. A fascinating interview.

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Friday, Feb. 25, 2022

Study links Tonawanda Coke to toxins

Soil contamination near Tonawanda Coke most likely comes from the now-shuttered plant, a just-released study has found.

A previous phase of the study of soil samples taken from the town and city of Tonawanda, Grand Island and Buffalo found elevated levels of toxins. The second phase of the study, released Thursday at a virtual meeting, evaluated 95 soil samples.

An unspecified, but small number of those samples contained elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are carcinogenic chemical compounds produced as a byproduct of burning coal and other fossil fuels.

Researchers determined with 85 percent confidence that Tonawanda Coke was the source of the PAHs.

“Eighty-five percent is not typically what we would look for in analytical chemistry study. We would want 95 percent to 99 percent confidence. So we have not achieved that,” said Tammy Milillo, a lead researcher on the study.

That’s likely because of several other sources of pollution in the area. They include a tire factory, oil refinery and the now closed Huntley Generating Station. Emissions from trucks and cars on the nearby I-190, Youngmann Memorial Highway and Grand Island Bridge are also a factor. 

“But I think it is fair to say that Tonawanda [Coke] most likely contributed to what we found,”  Milillo said.

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The study also identified toxins that were not the result of Tonawanda Coke operations. For example, the UB team found high levels of arsenic in the soil at two Grand Island schools. The source was railroad ties used in landscaping. The UB team notified school officials and the site was remediated.

Tonawanda Coke started producing coke, an ingredient used in making steel and iron created by burning coal, in 1917.

Nearby residents began to test the air with handmade kits in 2005 and found high levels of benzene, a chemical that can lead to leukemia. A few years later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a study that found the plant was emitting benzene at levels as many as 75 times higher than permissible.

In 2013, the company was found guilty of violating the federal Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. A federal judge ordered the company to pay for the $711,000 soil study as part of the penalty.

The company closed the plant in October 2018, saying it could not afford the cost of making improvements necessary to make the plant compliant with the law.

Developer Jon Williams of Ontario Specialty Contracting purchased the property at auction in 2019. His company was the only bidder.

Researchers took samples of soil, coke product and air emissions from the Tonawanda Coke property and compared them with the soil samples from the surrounding areas.

“The number of samples that were elevated was small, and there wasn’t a systematic blob of an area that had high contamination,” said Joseph Gardella, a  distinguished professor of chemistry at UB, who led the study.

PAHs are carcinogenic, but the levels found in the study aren’t reason for panic, Gardella assured. Exposure isn’t likely. The contaminants weren’t found at the surface of the soil.

Researchers took samples at a 6-inch depth under the surface. The team chose 6 inches to be sure they were digging through any recent landscaping that might obscure the impact of Tonawanda Coke’s ovens over its century of operation.

“Now that being said, six inches if you’re digging a garden, it’s good information to know,” Milillo said.

The contaminants may affect a small number of homeowners, all of whom will receive the results of the study, including the data specific to the samples taken on their properties.

But a cleanup isn’t likely, at least not on the dime of Tonawanda Coke.

The 85 percent level of confidence might not hold up if property owners want to dispute cleanup costs in court, according to Gardella. 

Even if they did, Gardella said, “the company is bankrupt anyways.”

During the second phase of the study, researchers also discovered high concentrations of arsenic at Charlotte Sidway Elementary and William Kaegebein Elementary in Grand Island.

“It was actually determined not to have anything to do with Tonawanda Coke, but the fact that they used railroad ties in some of the constructions of both a parking lot and a playground,” Milillo said.

The contaminants were found only in one area, as opposed to across school grounds. Researchers contacted school district officials, who worked with them and the New York State Department of Health to immediately remediate.

                                                                   – Layne Dowdall and Geoff Kelly

Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022

Changes afoot at WGRZ

Big doings this week at WGRZ.

Tuesday came the announcement that the station’s parent company, TEGNA, has been sold, pending approval by shareholders and the FCC. The buyer, Standard General, a hedge fund, presently owns just a handful of television stations; TEGNA consists of 64 stations, three of which will be sold as part of the transaction.

TEGNA, NextStar and Sinclair, are considered the “Big Three” of television chains.

Standard General is presently TEGNA’s largest shareholder. Ownership of the stations will go private when the transaction is finalized, which is expected in the second half of this year. The Manhattan-based firm’s other holdings include Bally’s Corp., whose properties include 14 casinos.

In-depth coverage of the sale has been reported by Poynter, the New York Post and Bloomberg. TEGNA spelled out the financial details of the transaction in a press release.

What new ownership means for WGRZ in the long-run is unclear, although no major changes are expected in the near term. The station’s news operation is locked in a ratings battle with WIVB, Channel 4, although WGRZ’s viewer demographics are better.

In an unrelated, but noteworthy development, station President Jim Toellner on Wednesday announced the return of Jeff Woodard as news director. Woodard held the position from 2008 to 2016, a period Toellner described in an email to staff as “truly our halcyon days.”

“During that time we had a major and sustained growth period in ratings and news share, taking us to the unchallenged number one position in the market.”

Toellner noted the numerous journalism awards the station won under Woodard’s leadership and added: “Jeff also was an attractor and developer of strong talent.”

Among his recruits was Investigative Post. Woodard contacted Editor Jim Heaney within hours of the launch of iPost’s website in 2012 and the two quickly struck a deal.

“I’m elated that ‘Woody’ is returning to Channel 2,” Heaney said. “He and I enjoyed a great working relationship and I expect we’ll pick up where we left off.”

Woodard returns after a stint at SUNY Fredonia, where he served as director of Marketing and Communications. He starts at WGRZ the week of March 21.

Coincidentally, Heaney and Toellner signed a contract last week that continues the partnership for another three years. (Toellner retires April 1.)

Investigative Post celebrated its 10-year anniversary Tuesday.

Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022

Scott Levin interview with Jim Heaney

Editor Jim Heaney discussed the past, present and future of Investigative Post in an interview earlier this week with WGRZ news anchor Scott Levin.

Investigative Post marked its 10 year anniversary Tuesday. Heaney, in his seven-minute interview with Levin, described Investigative Post’s place in the local media landscape, outlined his plans to continue to grow his nonprofit news organization, and noted the challenges reporters face these days – namely, stonewalling politicians and bureaucrats contemptuous of the public’s right to know.

In addition to watching the interview above, you can read Heaney’s history of Investigative Post at this link.

Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022

Investigative Post celebrates 10 years

Jim Heaney hit the “publish” button on investigativepost.org 10 years ago today. Since then, our nonprofit investigative reporting center has produced more than 2,000 stories and other pieces of content, earning a reputation for impactful, fact-based reporting.

Heaney recounts the origins and DNA of the publication he founded, its early days and evolution, and top stories over the years and the reporters who produced them.

He also discusses Investigative Post’s plans for continued growth and announces our new three-year contract with WGRZ, our primary news partner.

You can read the full story here.

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Monday, Feb. 21, 2022

‘Completely stupid’ burning of toxins

A Niagara Falls waste incineration plant burned almost 13 tons of firefighting foam over three years, potentially releasing into the air and water insidious toxins linked in animal studies to infertility, birth defects, developmental disorders, compromised immune systems and cancer.

When questioned by state officials, Covanta Niagara at first denied it.

Eventually the company admitted burning “a small amount” of the material — aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF — but claimed it didn’t know what it was burning.

“That is enough of these toxic chemicals to bring the entire drinking water of Buffalo and Niagara Falls above New York State’s guidance levels for drinking water,” said David Bond, a Bennington College professor who fought to stop a waste incinerator doing the same thing in Cohoes, N.Y., just north of Albany.

“That is not a small amount.”

Widely used for decades at airports and military facilities, the foam’s key ingredients belong to a family of chemicals called PFAS — short for per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances. State and federal agencies have classified PFAS as “emerging contaminants,” which means they are still studying the threat they pose to human health and have not yet finalized regulations on how to safely dispose of them.

Bond said many communities across the country are seeing AFFF from elsewhere burned in their backyards. Companies and agencies with the foam are trying to dispose of it before regulators classify PFAS as “hazardous waste.” It’s an effort “to get rid of their own liability,” he said.

“It’s a national story that is also a local crisis everywhere it happens,” he said.

Read the full story here.

Friday, Feb. 18, 2022

Weather for Bills games: Meh

Hard data has been missing from the discussion about whether to replace Highmark Stadium with a dome or another open-air stadium.

Layne Dowdall has crunched the numbers and found extreme weather days are relatively rare among the 157 home games played over the past 20 seasons

  • Only 15 games were played at or below freezing temperatures. The mercury climbed above 80 only seven times.
  • Two or more inches of snow fell on only six game days. (The Bills won five of those six games.)
  • On balance, daytime highs averaged 54 degrees, with a little better than 50-50 chance of some sort of precipitation at some point during the day, often in trace amounts.

Dowdall spoke with season ticket holders, including the “Bills Elvis.” They don’t like the rain, but aren’t keen on a dome, either.

Then again, a covered stadium would host many more events than an open-air venue and generate more revenue, providing taxpayers more return for their investment, despite higher construction costs.

Read the complete story here.

Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022

Fire station burning up City Hall budget

The City of Buffalo plans to build a palace of a new fire station in South Buffalo, judging from its price tag.

Over the last several years, the city has approved borrowing about $9 million to replace Station No. 6 at the corner of Seneca Street and Southside Parkway. The station houses two trucks, Engine 25 and Ladder 10, and the department’s 6th Battalion.

The 62-year-old building definitely needs replacing. It’s a wreck.

But $9 million (“… and counting,” says a City Hall source) is more than double the cost of the last new fire station the city built in 2010, in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood.

It’s also more than double the estimate Cannon Design gave the city for replacing that station six years ago, according to court documents filed in a lawsuit generated by the project.

That’s right: The project has already generated a lawsuit.

In 2014, before the city contemplated building a new station, it decided to put a new roof on the existing building. The lowest responsible bidder was Weaver Metal & Roofing, an East Side company, which gave a price of $514,900 for the job.

The project stalled for a while, but finally the contract was signed in April 2016.

Two months later, the city tried to cancel the contract.

Based on consultations with Cannon Design, the city decided replacing the building was better than putting a new roof on it. The structure was compromised, Cannon concluded. Roof replacement wouldn’t work.

However, Weaver already had committed time and money to the project. They had a signed contract. And, according to the company’s lawyers, that contract did not permit the city to simply change its mind.

The company sued the city in June 2018, seeking to be made whole.

Last month, the Common Council signed off on a settlement. The city agreed to pay Weaver Metal & Roofing $112,500 for its trouble.

For roof that will never be built on a structure slated for replacement.

Add it to the bill.

                                                                                              – Geoff Kelly

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022

Heaney on Hochul: “I’m not impressed

Writing for Buffalo Spree, Jim Heaney weighs in on Kathy Hochul’a performance as governor six months into her tenure.

Heaney, in his Outrages and Insights column, writes that he has concerns.

“I’m not impressed” he writes. “My reasons are mostly related to her handling of issues I consider of paramount importance: transparency and ethics, economic development, and fiscal prudence.”

You can read his full column here.

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Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022

OTB reform bills pass first test

Amid pushback from some county law legisislatures, a series of bills aimed at restructuring operations of the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. have cleared their first legislative hurdle.

The the three bills, sponsored by Buffalo Democratic Sen. Tim Kennedy, moved through the state senate’s Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wager on Monday.

Kennedy introduced the bills last month in a bid to end what he described as “perverse dysfunction” within WROTB. His proposed legislation calls for a restructuring of OTB’s board based on population. It would also limit the take-home use of OTB vehicles by select agency employees and put a $15 cap on the value of items, including tickets to sporting events and concerts, that could be accepted by OTB board members.

“Taxpayers are tired of the dysfunction that continues to plague the Western Regional OTB,” Kennedy said in a release issued by his office following Monday’s committee meeting.

“These bills were drafted in order to finally bring accountability and structure to a state corporation that has time and again demonstrated mismanagement and misuse of resources. By codifying these expectations and policies into law, we’re making it clear: corruption will be met with consequences.”

Kennedy introduced his reform package in response to an audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli that  identified several issues within OTB’s operations, including improper use of tickets to luxury suites at sporting and music events at Highmark Stadium and Keybank Center.

Earlier this month, OTB board members directed agency President Henry Wojtaszek to explore options for challenging the bills. Wojtaszek cited litigation as one possible option.

On Friday, Genesee County lawmakers approved a resolution calling on the  Senate to oppose Kennedy’s legislation. The resolution suggests the proposed reforms would cause “irreparable harm to Genesee County, its interests in WROTB, the economic interests of Genesee County, and the taxpayers of (Genesee County).” The Wyoming County Board of Supervisors previously adopted a similar resolution.

“This bill would take away the equalization of all the counties and we are in opposition to this bill,” Supervisor Susan May of Orangeville told the Daily News in Batavia.

                                                                                             – Mark Scheer

Monday, Feb. 14, 2022

Giambra tests run for State Senate

It looks like Joel Giambra, the former Erie County executive, is once again kicking the tires on a run for elected office.

This time the Democrat-turned-Republican seems to have his eyes on the 60th District State Senate seat, currently occupied by Democrat Sean Ryan.

Last week a poll began popping up on the cell phones of likely voters in the district, one of whom shared the link with Investigative Post.

The poll begins with a handful of questions meant to determine where on the political spectrum the respondent resides: Is New York State headed in the right or wrong direction? How do you feel about Joe Biden? Kathy Hochul? Mark Poloncarz?

Then the poll gets specific: What do you think of Joel Giambra? How about Sean Ryan? Which one would you vote for if an election were held today? What’s your opinion of Assemblyman Jon Rivera, a Ryan ally?

Finally, the poll gets topical: Should the state’s bail reform measures, championed by Democrats in the State Legislature, be reversed? Should the state end mask mandates for kids in schools? Are you concerned about “the rise of New York City dominated socialism in the State Legislature?”

Since leaving the county executive’s office 15 years ago, Giambra has made a living as a lobbyist and an investor in West Side real estate. He’s kept his hand in politics, too, and put himself forward as a candidate for office several times.

For example, in 2018 he said he was running for governor, but ultimately withdrew from the Republican primary and failed to win third party support.

In 2020, he suggested he’d run for the Assembly seat Ryan left when elected to the Senate that year. He called off that campaign due to illness, and Jon Rivera won the seat.

Last year, he told the Buffalo News he was interested in running for governor again.

Now his attention seems to have shifted to the State Senate.

Giambra, 65, hasn’t filed a campaign finance disclosure statement since January 2021, when he reported having about $70,000 in the bank left over from his career as an elected official. Before his two terms as county executive, Giambra served 10 years as Buffalo city comptroller and eight years as Niagara District Common Council member. Ryan has about $235,000 in campaign funds.

Two long-time participants in Western New York politics, who requested anonymity, characterized Giambra’s recent candidacies as marketing: Getting his name in the press, they told Investigative Post, helped Giambra to impress potential clients.

A third was more succinct, describing Giambra’s motivation in one word:


After this story published, Giambra texted a statement to Investigative Post:

“I was ready to ask the voters if they would want me to represent them in the Buffalo Assembly seat last cycle,” he wrote, noting he dropped out in order to get a kidney transplant. “My interest in returning to government has not diminished. Chances are very good that I will be asking voters to consider my candidacy for some state office.”

– Geoff Kelly

Friday, Feb. 11, 2022

Hochul donors hiding behind LLCs

Gov. Kathy Hochul was New York’s most successful political fundraiser last year, according to campaign finance disclosures filed last month with the state elections board. Her campaign committee raked in $21.6 million in just five months.

But Hochul’s campaign “flouted the law,” according to an analysis by New York Focus, by failing to identify the owners of 130 limited liability companies, or LLCs, that gave money to her committee.

Since 2019, candidates running for office have been required to identify the owners of LLCs that donate to their campaigns. An LLC’s donation is divided among the owners; each owner’s share counts against the cap on how much an individual can give a candidate. (In the governor’s race this year, the cap is $69,700.) The law’s intent is to close a loophole which saw wealthy donors using the anonymity of LLCs to skirt those donation limits.

Last year, 170 LLCs donated to Hochul, according to the New York Focus analysis, which was aided by the Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo-based public interest research organization, and co-published with The City.

Fewer than a quarter of those donations identified the LLC’s owners, effectively rendering the donors anonymous.

“We don’t know who is funding Governor Hochul, despite her pledges of transparency,” PAI’s Robert Galbraith told New York Focus. Hochul said last August her administration would open a “new era of transparency” in Albany.

The report identified a number of other state elected officials who also failed to list owners of the LLCs that support them, including Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt of Niagara County.

On Twitter, Galbraith noted that Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is a repeat offender, too, as Investigative Post has reported more than once:

The LLC violations and other apparent illegalities in Brown’s filings were the subject of a formal complaint filed Aug. 20 with the state elections board by Peter Rizzo, who analyzed Brown’s campaign finances for Brown’s challenger, India Walton.

The elections board’s enforcement division acknowledged receiving his complaint, Rizzo told Investigative Post, but he hasn’t heard from them since.
                                                                                                                        – Geoff Kelly

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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022

Amazon subsidies: $4.7 billion and counting

Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer and, at a current value of $1.6 billion, one of the wealthiest companies of any kind on the planet.

A report released Wednesday by the subsidy watchdog group, Good Jobs First, suggests the retail giant is also in an elite category when it comes to cashing in on taxpayer-funded benefits.

The report, titled “Amazon.com’s Hidden Worldwide Subsidies,” found the company has received $4.7 billion in public subsidies over the past decade to help drive the expansion of its global network of warehouses, distribution centers, office complexes and call centers.

According to the report, the bulk of the subsidies – about $4.1 billion – supported Amazon projects in the United States, where the company has 110 fulfillment centers.

Amazon has two distribution facilities in Western New York,  one in Tonawanda and another in Lancaster. It is reportedly in talks to build a third location, with an estimated value of $49 million, at the Lake Erie Commerce Center in Hamburg.

Outside the United States, the report determined that Amazon has received at least $600 million in public assistance in more than a dozen countries. Due to “poor disclosure practices in most countries,” the report concludes that the true value of the subsidies is “hidden” and likely much higher.

The authors of the report, which was generated with help from the UNI Global Union, a pro-labor federation representing 20 million service workers worldwide, call for an end to government subsidies for Amazon. Failing that, the authors suggest greater transparency is needed for projects involving Amazon and its affiliates.

“There’s no reason for national, regional, state or local governments to help offset Amazon’s costs for operations that are core to its strategy,” said Kenneth Thomas, a research fellow at Good Jobs First. “They should stop providing subsidies to Amazon, and instead use the money to invest in small businesses and public services.”

                                                                                                                 – Mark Scheer

Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022

School attendance continues to slide

A return to classroom instruction has not improved attendance in Buffalo schools. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

An analysis by Layne Dowdall found that nearly four in ten students have missed at least one day of class a week this school year. Fewer than two in 10 have satisfactory attendance rates. Both those numbers are appreciably worse than the 2020-21 school year when instruction was remote.

District officials say COVID – and the fear of getting infected – is a major reason for the problem. The district has responded by adding attendance teachers, among other steps, but some parent leaders say schools should be doing more.

Teachers, meanwhile, note that the pandemic has exacerbated a long-standing attendance problem, rooted in part in an unwillingness of some high school students to show up for school.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022

NFL stadium rush is on

The Buffalo Bills aren’t the only NFL franchise interested in replacing or upgrading their stadium. Seven other teams are working on plans.

While the Bills stadium plan – expected to cost $1.4 billion – is the most expensive at the moment, the other stadium deals won’t come cheap.

Like the Bills plan, most of the stadium deals involve large sums of public money.

Here’s a look at the other plans in the works:

  • New England Patriots. Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, which opened in 2002, is getting a $225 million makeover starting this year. Owner Robert Kraft and his family are footing the entire bill. The project calls for enhancements to the north end zone and entry plaza and the addition of a 75,000-square foot, glass-enclosed hospitality space. Gillette is also getting a new 370-foot-by-60-foot video board. Offering 22,200 square feet of viewing space, it will be the largest outdoor stadium video board of its type in the country.
  • Tennessee Titans. Last month, team officials unveiled a $600 million plan to renovate Nissan Stadium in Nashville where the Titans have played since 1999. Reports indicate that the Metro Sports Authority, the stadium’s state-owned landlord, would cover about half the cost, with the team picking up the remainder. The goal is to make the 23-year-old facility “Super Bowl ready” by not only renovating the stadium but also creating a neighborhood and entertainment district around it that would include paths, parks and an “activated riverfront” with docks, canoe launches and riverside dining.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars. Team owner Shad Khan has proposed a $441 million development project around TIAA Bank Field that includes a 125,000-square-foot, stand-alone practice facility, a Four Seasons hotel, residences, office space and renovation of a city-owned marina. In August, the Jacksonville City Council approved funding for the $120 million practice complex. Under the terms of the agreement with the team, the city will contribute $60 million, with Khan picking up the remaining half of the cost.
  • Washington Commanders. An effort is underway to move the Washington Football Team, now officially known as the Commanders, from its current home – FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland – to a new stadium that would be built in Northern Virginia. Washington’s current stadium lease expires in 2027. Team officials have reportedly shared renderings of a proposed domed stadium that would be connected to a commercial and retail complex. The cost could run as high as $2 billion.
  • Chicago Bears. One of the oldest franchises in the NFL with one of the oldest stadiums, is edging closer to a big move. Built in 1924, Soldier Field is one of the oldest stadiums in America. The Bears have called it home since 1971. The team announced last fall that it had reached a $200 million agreement to purchase a racetrack property about 30 miles northwest of Soldier Field. The move comes amid speculation that the team plans to build a stadium and entertainment complex on the 326-acre site. No word yet on what a new stadium might cost or who is going to pay for it.
  • Green Bay Packers. The only publicly owned, nonprofit team in the NFL announced in November the sale of $90 million of team “stock” to help finance improvements at Lambeau Field, which opened in 1957. The Packers are reportedly considering $250 million in stadium upgrades, including concourse improvements and new video scoreboards.
  • Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens completed a self-funded $120-million renovation of M&T Bank Stadium in 2019 and spent a total of $220 million on stadium upgrades since 1999. The Ravens are reportedly interested in additional renovations, and, just recently, The Maryland Stadium Authority, a public entity that owns the stadium, said it intends to propose legislation that would establish a $1.2 billion fund to support upgrades for the Ravens and baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, who play at nearby Camden Yards. The bill would increase the allowable bond debt for stadium projects from $235 million to $1.2 billion and allow up to $600 million in outstanding debt at stadium.  The Ravens’ lease at M&T Bank Stadium runs through 2027, when the facility would turn 30 years old.

Populous, an architectural and design firm the Bills are using to develop their stadium plans, is also involved with the project in Washington and construction of a practice facility and team headquarters for the Carolina Panthers.

                                                                                                                    – Mark Scheer

Monday, Feb. 7, 2022

The latest news on The Buffalo News

Here’s the latest on the tussle over the ownership of the chain that owns The Buffalo News:

To recap, Alden Global Capital made a bid late last year to purchase Lee Enterprises, whose newspaper holdings include The News. Lee has resisted in a series of maneuvers and the back-and-forth between the companies has gotten quite nasty.

The latest salvo came last week in the release of the chain’s quarterly financial report in which it described its media holdings as “the fastest growing digital subscription platform in local media.” Net profits were $13.2 million. All is good, according to Lee.

Alden had a different take, declaring the numbers “disappointing” and Lee’s integration of newspapers it bought from Warren Buffett in March 2020 as “inept.” Those papers include The News.

Investigative Post turned to two independent industry analysts, neither of which are fans of Alden, for their take.

Ken Doctor, who heads his own digital news operation in Santa Cruz, CA, wasn’t impressed with Lee’s spin.

In an email, he told us: “The continuing overall circulation revenue loss is most telling. They are buying lots of digital starts, but the loss in circulation revenue tells, combined with declines in revenue overall, says they are not ‘transitioning’ well after 15 years of transition.”

Rick Edmonds, media analyst at the Poynter Institute, wrote a column on the Lee report that said the numbers “suggest that that 59% year-to-year growth in digital-only subscriptions appears to have been achieved only with deep discounting.”

We asked Edmonds if he thought Alden would eventually prevail in its efforts to acquire Lee.

His response: “I can’t really predict.  Of course they could up their offer, but they may well be too cheap for that. They have tried some of these takeover moves and ended up walking away.  By the same token, they are often patient and persistent. Should keep us both watching for a while.”

                                                                                                                    – Jim Heaney

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Friday, Feb. 4, 2022

State paid $1B in OT last year

It cost New York taxpayers nearly a billion dollars to cover the overtime for state employees last year.

That’s part of the findings from a review of state salary data posted Thursday to seethroughny.net, a government transparency website operated by the Albany-based think tank, the Empire Center for Public Policy.

In its analysis of the 2021 state government payroll, the Empire Center determined state agencies paid $953.6 million in overtime during the calendar year. That’s $100 million, or about 12 percent, higher than in 2020.

According to the Empire Center, 228 state employees were paid $100,000 or more in overtime in 2021. A total of 1,443 state employees, including 1,412 executive branch workers, were paid more than the governor’s salary of $225,000 last year.

Overall salaries for state employees rose 6.1 percent, from $64,124 to $68,292.

The data examined by the Empire Center included 2021 base pay rates and total pay for more than 289,000 employees who worked in the state’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Ninety-eight of the state’s 100 top earners worked at the State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY).

The highest-paid state employee was Dr. Robert Corona Jr., the CEO of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, who received $823,933.

Two University at Buffalo coaches ranked among the 100 highest paid SUNY employees, James Whitesell (basketball, $441,618) and Lance Leipold (​​football, $419,632.) Liepold has since left UB and is coaching at Kansas University at triple the salary.


                                                                                                                     – Mark Scheer

Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022

Stadium benefits campaign goes public

 A coalition that wants a community benefits agreement attached to public subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium has taken their campaign public, after months of quiet organizing.

The coalition held a press conference Tuesday morning at Johnnie B. Wiley stadium on the city’s East Side — the old Rockpile, the original home of the Bills. The speakers included community activist Karima Amin, Tanvier Peart and Miles Gresham of Partnership for the Public Good, Bridge Rauch of Buffalo Transit Riders United, and Dr. Myron Glick, the founder and CEO of Jericho Road Community Health Center.

The coalition wants a legally binding agreement governing hiring and contracting during construction and for stadium operations once the facility is up and running. They want the public dollars at work — perhaps as much as $1 billion — to stay local, to benefit individuals and firms from economically disadvantaged parts of the city and county, and to favor minority- and women-owned businesses, all at levels higher than currently prescribed by state law.

At the press conference, PPG’s Gresham noted that Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin is a CBA proponent, as Investigative Post reported in one of three stories on the issue published last week. Baskin’s CBA plan includes the Bills committing up to $100 million to fund community health, affordable housing, recreational and educational programs — all things professional sports teams have agreed to do in many other communities.

“[A] rotating loan fund for first-time homebuyers … expanded public transportation … expanded facilities for schools … building new affordable housing. All are within the realm of possibility and should be what we’re asking for, not just the state minimum,” Gresham said.

In addition to reporting on Baskin’s plan, Investigative Post looked at comparable CBAs around the country and the mixed record of previous CBA campaigns in Western New York.

Another proponent of a Bills stadium CBA is State Senator Sean Ryan, whose district includes Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park. The Bills intend a new stadium to be built adjacent to the current facility.

“We would like to see that stadium built with all union labor,” Ryan told Investigative Post last Friday. “But we also want to make sure that all the jobs that occur inside the stadium are high-wage jobs … people cleaning the stadium, security, parking cars … we want to make sure that workforce also comes from the city of Buffalo, and it’s also paid a living wage, and has a chance to unionize if that’s what the workers want.”

                                                                                                                     – Geoff Kelly

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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022

Intel lured by $2 billion subsidy

The microchip subsidy game is getting more and more costly for taxpayers.

Multiple media outlets reported this week that it cost the state of Ohio more than $2 billion worth of incentives to convince tech-giant Intel Corp. to invest $20 billion in the construction of two chip-making plants just outside of Columbus.

The subsidy package for what’s been described as the largest single private-sector company investment in Ohio history reportedly involves $1.2 billion in cash incentives, including a direct cash grant to the company valued at $600 million.  Economic development officials in Ohio described the $600 million as an “onshoring grant” that would be used to help offset Intel’s construction costs, which officials suggested would be 20 percent to 30 percent higher in the United States than Asia.

In addition, Ohio has reportedly agreed to cover $691 million in infrastructure costs for the project and provide Intel with $650 million in job-creation tax credits over a 30-year period.

Local property tax abatements and $150 million in economic development and workforce grants from JobsOhio, the state’s development agency, will push the incentive package over the $2 billion mark.

Intel’s new Ohio plants will be built on 1,000 acres in New Albany, 15 miles northeast of Columbus. The factories are expected to create about 7,000 construction jobs and employ 3,000 workers when they open in 2025. Intel officials have said the project would be part of a larger $100 billion investment aimed at creating the largest chip-making complex in the world.

Investigative Post first reported in January that another tech giant, Samsung, turned down a subsidy offer worth $1.9 billion to locate a plant in Genesee County. The company instead opted to build a chip manufacturing facility in Taylor, Texas, just outside Austin.

That deal, had it been accepted, would have been the second largest incentive package  in New York history and among the largest in the country. It was pitched as part of an ongoing effort to bring a large commercial tenant to the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, a 1,250-acre industrial site located in the Town of Alabama.

                                                                                                                           – Mark Scheer

Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022

OTB striking back: Officials to fight reform effort

Officials from the Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp. plan to fight one state senator’s efforts to reform their operation.

Following OTB’s monthly meeting on Jan. 21, agency President Henry Wojtaszek told the Daily News in Batavia that he was directed by the agency’s board to explore options for challenging three pieces of legislation introduced by state Sen. Tim Kennedy.

Wotjaszek hinted that one option could be litigation.

Another could involve encouraging local lawmakers representing Western New York communities served by OTB to approve resolutions opposing Kennedy’s reforms.

“You heard today that the board certainly doesn’t support a measure to dismantle the board that has done such a great job to bring Batavia Downs to where it is right now, where it is returning record amounts of money to the municipalities,” Wojtaszek said.

On Jan. 13, Kennedy unveiled legislation that would alter OTB’s board structure based on population and prohibit the take-home use of OTB vehicles by select agency employees. In addition, the legislation calls for a $15 cap on the value of items, including sports and concert tickets, that board members are permitted to accept.

Kennedy introduced the legislation in response to an audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli that identified several issues within OTB’s operations, including improper use of tickets to luxury suites at sporting and music events at Highmark Stadium and Keybank Center.

Wojtaszek has previously said that OTB has already taken steps to address concerns raised by the comptroller’s audit. He and other OTB board members bristled at Kennedy’s suggestion that additional reforms were needed.

Wojtaszek told the Daily News that the perks covered under Kennedy’s proposed legislation were addressed by the corporation three years ago and said that his proposed cap on promotional items was not needed because OTB already had a “limit relative to gifts.”

The Daily News also reported that Genesee County’s OTB representative, Richard Seibert, planned to present lawmakers in his county with a resolution that would assert the county’s home rule in an effort to oppose Kennedy’s reforms. He suggested there are plans to distribute similar pieces of legislation for consideration in other counties within Western OTB’s jurisdiction, while calling Kennedy’s plan a “power grab for the bigger counties.”

“It’s a complete takeover by some powerful people,” Siebert said.

OTB did not respond to requests for comment from Investigative Post.

A spokesperson for Kennedy’s office said the senator declined comment.

                                                                                                                       – Mark Scheer

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Monday, Jan. 31, 2022

Councilmen violating campaign finance law

Three of Buffalo’s Common Council members are behind on filing campaign finance disclosure statements, the latest of which was due Jan. 18.

Or, rather, they were behind.

When Investigative Post started asking about their missing filings last week, at least two of them began trying to catch up.

When we checked the state election board’s online records shortly after the Jan. 18 deadline, we found two city legislators — Rasheed Wyatt and Ulysees Wingo — hadn’t filed since 2019.  That was the last year Buffalo Council members were on the ballot. A third, David Rivera, hadn’t filed since July 2020.

Since we began asking questions, Rivera has caught up. Wyatt has started to catch up. Wingo, a spokesman for the state elections board told Investigative Post, has not done so yet.

Read the full story here.

                                                                                                                             – Geoff Kelly

Friday, Jan. 28, 2022

CBA proponents here seeking first win

Community groups in Western New York twice have tried to attach community benefits agreements, or CBAs, to taxpayer-funded development projects. The first local CBA campaign was for Canalside in 2009, the next a few years later for an expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Both campaigns failed to win legally binding agreements, though there were some silver linings.

A similar coalition hopes the third try will be the charm, as it seeks a CBA for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, which is expected to receive substantial public subsidies.

Read the full story here.

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022

Linking community benefits to a new Bills stadium

Yesterday we reported how other cities have used community benefits agreements, or CBAs, to get the best value for their money from professional sports venues built with the help of taxpayer dollars.

Today, Geoff Kelly looks at a CBA proposal championed by Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin, enumerating conditions she and others want attached to any public subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.

Baskin wants benchmarks for hiring and contracting that favor local workers and firms, support women- and minority-owned businesses, and ensure good-paying jobs during and after construction. Her proposal also asks the Bills to commit $100 million to fund programs that benefit Erie County’s urban and rural poor.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022

How a stadium can benefit the community

When the Los Angeles Clippers wanted a new basketball arena, the team committed to a community benefits agreement, or CBA, earmarking $100 million for affordable housing, college scholarships and other programs to help out the host community.

The Atlanta Falcons ponied up $40 million for parks and a job training center, among other civic-minded investments, to help justify public subsidies for a new football stadium. The Pittsburgh Penguins paid for a new grocery story in a neighborhood that had been without one for decades.

Here in Western New York, community groups and elected officials are looking at these and other CBAs as models for what Erie County and New York State might demand from the Buffalo Bills before forking over public dollars to build the team a new, $1.4 billion stadium.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022

The Pegulas should pay up

Let’s face it, taxpayers are going to have to shell out to help pay for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. The question is how much.

Jim Heaney, in his Outrages & Insights column, argues that most of the burden should fall on the team’s billionaire owners, Terry and Kim Pegula. Drawing in part on research by Forbes magazine, Heaney details just how rich the Pegulas are, the growing value of the team since they bought the Bills, and how uber-profitable NFL teams are.

Heaney’s column also draws on reporting done by Mark Scheer for Investigative Post, noting that the Bills are believed to be seeking subsidies that could dwarf those doled out to other NFL teams while benefiting from a one-sided lease on their current stadium that enables the team to keep almost all revenues while saddling taxpayers with most expenses, right down to those cost of paying ushers, ticket takers and security personnel.

You can read the column here.

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Monday, Jan. 24, 2022

Another high-tech miss for Genesee County

Another tech giant with big microchip expansion plans is bypassing New York, this time for Ohio.

Intel Corp. announced on Friday plans to invest at least $20 billion to develop amicrochip manufacturing complex  in Jersey Township, outside of Columbus. Company officials said the plant will employ 3,000. Construction is expected to begin later this year, with production expected by the end of 2025.

Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger said the project is part of the company’s plans to invest $100 billion to build up to eight microchip factories on the Ohio campus by 2030.

The project is being billed as the largest economic development project in Ohio history and one of the largest microchip manufacturing investments ever in the United States.

So far, there’s no word on local or state subsidies. However, Gelsinger and other Intel officials have been advocating for approval of the CHIPS Act, a federal bill that would pump $52 billion into domestic microchip manufacturing.

Before choosing Ohio, Intel officials reportedly considered sites in New York state, including the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park in rural Genesee County.

While local, state and federal officials have touted the largely undeveloped 1,250-acre site in the Town of Alabama as a future landing spot for various big tech companies, to date, there is just one tenant – a hydrogen fuel company called Plug Power. The subsidy package for that project amounted to $4 million per job.

Last year, the Genesee County Economic Development Center and the Empire State Development Corp. came up short in a bid to lure another microchip giant – Samsung – to STAMP, despite offering an incentive package worth nearly $2 billion.

Samsung accepted a smaller subsidy package worth just over $1 billion from the state of Texas, where it will build a microchip plant in the City of Taylor, outside Austin.

Genesee County economic development officials have so far spent more than $30 million to develop STAMP, which remains mostly fields. A letter from the Empire State Development Corp. offering an incentive package worth $1.9 billion to Samsung indicated that another $200 million in infrastructure improvements would be needed.

                                                                                                                      – Mark Scheer

Friday, Jan. 21, 2022

Eye-catching public pensions

Working for a public school system in New York State tends to pay well.

So does being retired from one.

Teachers and administrators who retired last year left with an average pension of  $73,552 annually. That was up about $2,500 from the previous year.

The figures reflect teachers and administrators who put in at least 30 years and worked outside of New York City.

Retirees from Western New York averaged $63,060. That placed WNY in the middle of the pack of nine regions around the state. Tops was Long Island, with an average pension of $94,108 per year.

Pensions for educators

Region Retirees Pension
Long Island 713 $94,108
Mid-Hudson 520 $83,668
Capital 271 $63,592
Western New York 272 $63,060
Finger Lakes 263 $61,754
Mohawk Valley 118 $57,785
Central New York 224 $56,670
Southern Tier 196 $55,148
North Country 108 $54,946
Total 2,685 $73,553
Source: The Empire Center for Public Policy.

More than 10 percent of new retirees are drawing six-figure pensions, led by the $271,275 paid to former Locust Valley School Superintendent Anna Hunderfund. The biggest pension paid among new retirees from WNY was $103,280 annually.

The pension payouts are according to a new report from the Empire Center for Public Policy.

                                                                                                            – Layne Dowdall

Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022

A lack of urgency on Bills stadium

There’s been talk lately from the Buffalo Bills and government officials that time is running out to decide on a new stadium for the team.

It’s worth noting, however, that a committee was put together at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s behest to consider stadium options – eight years ago.

It only met once. Eight years ago.

The group wasn’t lacking in clout. Notable New Stadium Working Group members included U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, LP Ciminelli Chairman Louis Ciminelli, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, Empire State Development Corp. President Kenneth Adams and Kathy Hochul, the current governor, who was a vice president of M and T Bank at the time. The committee included several Bills officials, including President and CEO Russ Brandon and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Littmann.

Along with political juice, the working group had resources.

The stadium’s 2013 lease allocated more than $2 million in funding to the committee by 2018 and a total of $11.7 million by 2023, the final year of the agreement.

During the group’s initial meeting on April 1, 2014 – yes, April Fool’s day –  members were briefed on the stadium lease and plans for $130 million in planned renovations to the existing facility.

Following the meeting, then Brandon, the Bills president at the time, said eight years was not a long time to secure the franchise’s long-term future in Western New York.

“That’s the reason we’re standing here today,” Brandon said. “This will be a long process. We have a lot of work that needs to be done. But I know our group is up for the task.”

The stadium group never met again, nor has it played any role in planning for what’s been reported as a new $1.4 billion stadium in Orchard Park.

So, why didn’t the group meet again?

Duffy, Poloncarz and Brandon served as co-chairs.

We asked Duffy, lieutenant governor at the time, why the lack of action. He didn’t get back to us. We couldn’t get an explanation from Poloncarz’s office, either. Brandon is long gone from the Bills.

Pamm Lent, a spokesperson for Empire State Development, said responsibility for developing stadium plans shifted to the Bills after Ralph Wilson’s estate sold the team to the Pegulas.

Indeed, the Pegulas have since taken the lead on stadium development, having commissioned their own study that examined potential stadium sites in Buffalo, Amherst and Orchard Park.

The Bills took their time hiring the consultants that produced the report. CAA ICON was retained in November 2018.That was four years after the working group met for its first and only time.

The Bills later shared that study with the state, but refused to release it to the press or public until Investigative Post sued for its release.

The state later commissioned its own study, released in November, well after stadium negotiations had started.

All this begs the question: If time was of the essence, why haven’t the Bills and politicians acted with a greater sense of urgency?

                                                                                                                        – Mark Scheer

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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022

Enck: Test for “forever chemicals”

A former top EPA official is calling for the monitoring of members of Buffalo’s Burmese community because of their consumption of fish contaminated with so-called “forever chemicals.”

Judith Enck is responding to an Investigative Post story published in September.

The story, ‘More Danger Lurking in the Water,” covered a state and federal study of fishermen who eat their local catches.

All of the fishermen tested had elevated levels of the toxin known as PFOS, one in a class of chemicals known as PFAS, but the highest were found in Burmese citizens, who make up one of Western New York’s largest immigrant communities. Their results were as much as 6.5 times higher than the national average.

Enck, the EPA’s top administrator during the Obama years for the region that includes New York, told Investigative Post the findings in the story were “stunning” and “really disturbing.”

Public officials and other agencies should do more to make people aware of the risks, Enck said, which include a host of damaging health effects, including immunity and fertility issues, hypertension and cancer.

“There needs to be signs all over that waterfront, and not just brochures that no one reads. I mean, those are really high levels,” she said.

“They’re probably experiencing some health problems,” Enck said, adding she had made calls to local advocacy groups, like Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. “They may not know why that is happening. They need medical monitoring, right away.”

The chemicals were used widely in industrial and household goods for decades, including firefighting foams and lubricants; and nonstick coatings, like teflon, food packaging and fabric protectors.

Jill Jedlicka, waterkeeper’s executive director, said the group is one of several in the state “sounding the alarm on the risks from PFAS for some time now.”

“There is no known safe level of PFAS in drinking water. Waterkeeper will be advocating strongly for state and federal regulators to direct resources into WNY for dedicated testing and monitoring in our community, and wherever they are found, we will fight for both public transparency and the timely cleanup of these damaging contaminants.”

– Phil Gambini

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022

The hidden cost of housing the Bills

There’s been a lot of chatter about how much money the public might have to fork over for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. Little attention has been paid to the other ways in which taxpayers would be on the hook. The costs are considerable.

Mark Scheer has done an in-depth analysis of the Bills’ current lease on Highmark Stadium, which is a starting point for ongoing negotiations. He found that, over the years, Erie County has surrendered all claims to stadium revenue, while county and state taxpayers took on expenses that come to about $13 million a year.

Did you know, for example, that taxpayers are responsible for paying the wages of ushers and ticket takers? Ditto for security, including those in parking lots where the Bills keep all the revenue. The lease even provides the Bills money to spend on team operations as the Pegulas see fit.

Mark also reviewed leases at four other subsidized stadiums built in the past decade. He found ours lacking.

Read the full story here.

Monday, Jan. 17, 2022

Ortt’s failing environmental report card

Few in the state Legislature protect the environment as poorly as Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, according to one leading ecological advocacy group.

Environmental Advocates Action gave Ortt its 2021 “Oil Slick Award” for his voting record. The group, a lobbying and advocacy outfit, annually “honors” officials whose positions they deem most harmful.

According to Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY, Ortt’s “extreme anti-environmental voting record should make him an outcast, not the Senate minority leader.”

Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, refused an interview, but his spokesman, Andrew Dugan, told Investigative Post that the minority leader supports “sensible” policy positions. Environmental Advocates is a “left-wing special interest” group, Dugan contended.

Iwanowicz noted Ortt’s opposition to a proposed state constitutional amendment adding a right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment,” which was approved by voters in November. According to a Siena College Research Institute poll published last year, the amendment was supported by 64 percent of Republicans.

“Almost 2 million New Yorkers just voted overwhelmingly to add the right of clean air and water and a healthful environment to the state Constitution,” Iwanowicz said. “Senator Ortt tried to block that from happening. It’s clear from his record that Senator Ortt doesn’t share their values.”

Ortt ranked low during last year’s evaluation too, receiving the worst grade of the 208 state legislators reviewed. His positions are not unique among Western New York GOP legislators, though. The local Republican caucus averaged a score of 41 out of 100 in 2020, compared to the statewide Republican average of 60.

Look back at last year’s rankings, and listen to a conversation with Iwanowicz, here.

                                                                                                                         – Phil Gambini

Friday, Jan. 14, 2022

County election boards fail transparency test

When a good government group decided to test whether county election boards comply with the state’s open government laws, the first hurdle was getting someone – anyone – at those boards to answer an email or a phone call.

It wasn’t easy.

Last summer the New York Coalition for Open Government — a group that tracks government agencies’ compliance with freedom of information and open meetings laws — emailed 17 county election boards across the state to ask how often commissioners held meetings, whether those meetings were publicized, and whether meeting agendas and meetings were posted online. In many cases they followed up with phone calls.

Eleven of the 17 boards — including those in Erie and Niagara counties — didn’t bother to reply.

Of the six who did, only one reported that it publicized upcoming meetings and posted agendas online. The other five said their election commissioners met regularly, as required by law, but did not invite the public or publish meeting agendas and minutes.

An Oswego County election commissioner “seemed flabbergasted by the questions,” the coalition reported earlier this week.

“[The commissioner] did not understand what the board would meet about, what actions they would take publicly or privately, or what minutes would be logged,” according to the coalition’s report.

The coalition followed up with a formal Freedom of Information Law request, adding two more counties, for a total of 19 election boards. Just five acknowledged the FOIL request in writing within five days, as required by law. Four more eventually responded, but after the five-day deadline.

“Amazingly, 10 election boards just never acknowledged our FOIL request,” said Paul Wolf, a Western New York attorney who is the coalition’s founder and executive director.

So, the coalition sent a second FOIL request a month later. That one didn’t fare much better.

In the end, just 10 of the 19 boards — Erie County’s among them — provided the coalition with agendas and minutes of meetings. The Niagara County Board of Elections was never heard from.

“A pretty pitiful success rate,” Wolf said, noting that one board only responded a week ago, almost six months after the fact. State law gives public agencies up to 20 business days to fulfill FOIL requests.

Among the report’s conclusions: The state should create a body that has the authority, the resources and the political independence to monitor and enforce transparency laws, leveling penalties when agencies persistently violate them.

“Frankly, we’re getting tired of releasing report after report of noncompliance with the law,” Wolf said.

Read the full report below:

— Geoff Kelly

Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022

Buffalo schools failing the test

So what does a school district do when many of its underachieving students miss a year’s worth of instruction due to the pandemic?

If you’re Buffalo schools, you promote almost all of them to the next grade.

In doing so, the district pledged programming to help students catch up. But halfway through the school year, that effort is hamstrung, mostly by problems related to the pandemic.

As parent leader Sam Radford told us: “Our children who are already the furthest behind … they’re falling further behind.”

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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022

Nearly $2 billion wasn’t enough

State and local officials, determined to win the competition for a semiconductor plant that will employ 1,800, offered Samsung $1.89 billion in subsidies to locate the factory in Genesee County, just north of Batavia.

The chief competition, two sites in and around Austin, Texas, dangled large subsidy packages, as well. But at $1 billion each, they fell way short of what New York was offering.

Nevertheless, Samsung opted for Taylor, Texas.

Why did the company bypass Genesee County?

It’s unclear, but the remote location could have been a factor. How remote? It was going to cost $200 million just to bring utilities to the site, located in an industrial park that is mostly fields.

New York’s subsidy package, if it has been accepted, would have been the second-largest in state history, double that of what Tesla received to build its plant in South Buffalo.

Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022

Top iPost story of the year

Readers voted Phil Gambini’s report on high levels of E. coli bacteria in local waterways at our top story of 2021. Blame it on the discharge of untreated sewage which is spewed into waterways after heavy rains..

Gambini reported:

There’s a particular problem with the Black Rock Canal, popular with fishermen, the occasional swimmer and, most notably, the West Side Rowing Club and high school and college crew teams. E. coli readings consistently exceed safe limits — by up to 14 times — established by the federal government.

“There are people coming in contact with water with E. coli from human feces every single day,” Wendy Paterson of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper told Investigative Post.

Other affected waterways included the Buffalo and Niagara rivers and  Scajaquada, Ellicott and Eighteen Mile creeks.

Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021

City inspectors MIA

The Great Northern grain elevator on the Buffalo River has been crumbling in plain sight for 28 years. Fault the building’s owner, Archer Daniels Midland. But City Hall is also complicit.

Yes, the company is at fault for not maintaining the hulking structure, but it’s been aided and abetted by City Hall.

The city has inspected the building only one time since ADM purchased it in 1993. That dates all the way back to the administration of Anthony Masiello.

The city can’t say it wasn’t warned. ADM, seeking to make a case for demolition, alerted the city several times over the years to serious problems with the structure. The city’s response was to do nothing, not even inspect the gain elevators, save one time.

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Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021

Tesla: Better late than never

Tesla has finally met its job goals at its billion dollar plant in South Buffalo.

The state had extended Tesla’s deadline twice. The third time was a charm, and in this case, a way of dodging a $41.2 million penalty.

Tesla had until the end of the year to meet the target of 1,460 jobs; employment as of early November stood at 1,557.

Let’s hold off celebrating, however.

A look at Tesla’s online job postings shows a lot of positions pay modest wages. And the plant, built with nearly $1 billion in state subsidies, has produced little spin-off development, aside from the Tim Horton’s across the street.

Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021

Sued into doing the right thing

You may have read or watched stories in the daily newspaper or local television stations about the details of studies involving the proposed construction of a new stadium for The Buffalo Bills. You can thank Investigative Post.

The state released the studies after we sued Empire State Development, the state’s primary economic development agency, after it rejected our requests for copies under the Freedom of Information Law. Only when we filed the lawsuit did the state relent.

Said Michael Higgins, one of our attorneys: ““These documents were always public records and Empire State Development withheld them, gambling that no one would expend the time and money it takes to file a lawsuit to force their release. They lost that gamble.”

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