Two weeks ago, in our editorial Far from Ideal, we cut Sullivan County lawmakers plenty of slack in terms of their propensity to give Ideal Snacks the go-ahead for Empire Zone status. Though troubled by the low wages and lack of health coverage for the jobs proposed by the company, we recognized that for many of Sullivan Countys unemployed lacking advanced job skills, any job would be better than none. We thought that if the company were willing to work with social service agencies and government entities, they might jointly be able to come up with ways to enhance the benefits available for the proposed 50 jobs.
The answer to a question posed by county manager David Fanslau, at a public meeting following the public hearing on July 17, effectively squelched that defense. He wanted to know if the company would be willing to give Sullivan County residents preference for the 50 jobs; the company said no. And the legislators went right ahead and voted six to three to move the application forward, followed by a five-to-two vote in favor by the Zone Administration Board (ZAB).
First of all, taxpayers are now being asked to subsidize jobs that wont even go to Sullivan County residents. We thought the whole point of creating an Empire Zone was to revitalize the economy for residents of that zone, not for workers, or companies, from elsewhere. But it gets worse. From other testimony at the hearing, there is plenty of evidence that Ideal is not the kind of company we want to encourage to expand in this county—certainly not at public expense.
For instance: the Village of Liberty is suing Ideal Snacks over waste it released into the sewer system, which the town has spent thousands of dollars to mitigate. The owner of the adjoining property, Liberty Lanes, says his parking lot has been destroyed by the companys heavy trucks. A pastor in Fallsburg claims that she was intimidated by an Ideal Snacks lawyer for trying to help workers at the company. The Workers Rights Law Center has received numerous complaints from workers, including one that a supervisor prevented workers from using the restroom at will. And it appears that the best defense against allegations of employee mistreatment Ideal could come up with at the public hearing was that they let employees take home the leftovers after the annual Christmas party.
As we argued in our previous editorial, both the existing jobs and the new jobs at Ideal Snacks will cost the taxpayer money, because wages and benefits are so low that workers will be forced to rely on social services, like emergency rooms, that are financed by the public. Add the expense of the Liberty litigation to the taxpayers tab. Now consider that the new jobs Ideal proposes will give nothing back to the local community, because in addition to being too low-paying to actually cover the employees living and health expenses, they wont even go to Sullivan County residents. And they are especially interested in hiring people who do not understand English. Or, perhaps, their rights as employees.
Makes sense to give them a big tax break, right?
ZAB member Ted Polinaro said he was concerned that the company may leave if it doesnt get what it wants, and the current 230 employees will be left as effective wards of the county. His fears seem to be justified by Eileen Haworth Weils account of a question she asked owner Zeke Alenick in a tour of the company. Haworth Weil wrote that when she asked Alenick why New York State taxpayers should subsidize his business, he replied, Well leave Liberty if we dont get what were asking for.
We cant help wondering whether, if the employees moved to Sullivan County for those jobs in the first place, they mightnt follow the company to its next location. But beyond that, Alenicks stance suggests the company is essentially holding the 230 existing employees hostage against its demand for Empire Zone status. How does it make sense to increase the number of hostages by 50—especially 50 who dont even live here now?
Between its browbeating approach and its refusal to give Sullivan County residents preference for jobs, Ideal Snacks has crossed a line beyond which it is indefensible to give it public support. Our legislators just rewarded the bully who goes after the vulnerable in our society for the sake of profit. Economic considerations may make it seem like a difficult call, but discerning whats right and whats in the public interest is part of what we elect people to office to do. And if they cant in a case as extreme as this, maybe they just shouldnt be making those decisions.
If you feel the same way, you might like to know how your legislator voted, and keep it in mind the next time you see their names on the ballot.
Voting for: David A. Sager (District 1), Elwin Wood (District 3), Jonathan Rouis (District 4), Jodi Goodman (District 6), Leni Binder (District 7) and Alan Sorensen (District 9).
Voting against: Ron Hiatt (District 8), Kathy LaBuda (District 2), Frank Armstrong (District 5).
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During our July full board meeting, the Sullivan County legislature approved a resolution to declare Ideal Snack Foods in Liberty, NY a regionally significant business. This designation will allow this privately held company to begin the process to re-certify itself and gain re-entry into the state-run Empire Zone (EZ) program, which offers incentives to businesses that meet specific criteria for job creation and investment. Ideal Snacks re-entry into the Empire Zone is predicated by securing a favorable listing with the zone as a regionally significant project.