New York state's competitive Regional Economic Development Council program has doled out more than $5 billion in tax credits and cash since it was established in 2011. But the details about how some funding applications are chosen over others — and how recipients plan to spend the money — are all too often kept under wraps. That needs to stop.
An example of the glaring lack of transparency can be seen this year in a pending award for a project concerning Owasco Lake.
With much fanfare, the state announced in December that the central New York region was being awarded $86 million for 112 projects. One of those was more than $1 million that the Nature Conservancy said would be used "to protect Owasco Lake and clean drinking water in Central New York."
But what exactly is that money going to be used for? The state said the award would be used to purchase and restore up to six parcels in the Owasco Lake watershed to reduce sediment runoff into the lake. But the Nature Conservancy said in January that its application was much more broad than that, and that it had not yet identified any particular properties to focus on.
So, what exactly is in the Nature Conservancy's REDC application? The state Department of Environmental Conservation denied The Citizen's formal request to see the paperwork, arguing that disclosure "would impair present and imminent contract awards."
Our position is that somewhere between announcing the grant awards and the money being spent, the public should be allowed to know the details. And that time is now.
If an application were to expose proprietary information about a private business, then a case could be make for redacting some of the information available to public view. In this case, we're talking about a non-profit group that works to help the environment. And the fact that this money is reportedly going to be used to improve the health of Owasco Lake makes it of utmost importance for people who live in this area.
If it takes legislation to make this process more transparent, then so be it. The Legislature should make it a point to get that done this spring. This grant program has doled out billions of dollars for projects across the state, and the public has every right to know how their money is being spent.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Rob Forcey, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.