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JCIDA investigates whether state law bans assistance to agriculture industry

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Supporting the agriculture industry has long been a priority for the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, but the organization’s law firm recently discovered that the assistance might be banned under state law.

The thorny issue cropped up when the state Senate passed legislation that would amend a definition in state law so that industrial development agencies make agriculture projects a priority for economic development. That legislation, which has yet to be approved by the Assembly, spurred agency CEO Donald C. Alexander to investigate whether IDAs have the authority to offer tax incentives for commercial agriculture projects.

After examining section 18A of General Municipal Law, an attorney from Harris Beach of Rochester questioned whether the law authorizes IDAs to support commercial agriculture at all. Mr. Alexander broached the issue during a forum Wednesday with Darrel J. Aubertine, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, who also was surprised about that conclusion. If the law prevents IDAs from working in the agriculture sector, Mr. Alexander said, it could jeopardize the job of the agency’s agriculture coordinator, Jay M. Matteson.

“We may be in an area that is not covered by the legislation, because agriculture is not covered under our core areas of responsibility,” Mr. Alexander said. “I can’t imagine the type of agriculture we have here wouldn’t be areas our agency is designed to support. This has never occurred to me before because no one has ever said anything about it.”

Mr. Alexander also discovered that the amendment to include agriculture in the state law had been on the Legislature’s agenda for 10 years but was never approved by lawmakers.

“Each time it’s been rejected by either the Assembly or Senate for reasons no one can identify,” he said. “We see agriculture as part of our mission, but I hesitate to put our agency in jeopardy, because we’re not trying to do anything that’s illegal.”

Mr. Alexander said that dairy farmers here provide essential support for large dairy processors, such as Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, by providing an ample supply of milk in the region. Because of that critical role farmers play, he said, IDAs should have the authority to support their projects with financial incentives.

“Farmers provide the source of products that are necessary for Great Lakes Cheese to function,” Mr. Alexander said. “That raw product has to come from a commercial operation, and I want to be sure that those guys who are providing the milk are included for our agency to assist. That’s why this state legislation is a smart idea, because it makes it more clear that IDAs can be engaged in assisting agriculture.”

Mr. Matteson said Friday that he was taken aback to learn that state law might preclude IDAs from supporting the industry.

“I would be flabbergasted that there would be any question about it,” he said. “We absolutely need to get the legislation corrected, especially given the governor’s emphasis on growing agriculture. If there’s anybody out there that’s questioning this, I’d have to question if they have their head screwed on right.”

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