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Letter to the Editor: Maranatha Mess Is a Significant Concern

Written By Editor on 11/8/13 | 11/8/13

Dear Editor:
The Maranatha mess in Richmondville should be of significant concern to residents of Schoharie County. The vast majority of the capital used to build and operate (however briefly) this for-profit, commercial business came from taxpayers. While public incentives for private business are nothing new and can make sense when they encourage real economic development, the scale of tax payer funds given to Maranatha in the form of direct grants, low interest loans and tax abatement's is staggering and is measured in the millions of dollars. The flow of that money was facilitated in large part by the Schoharie County Economic Development Agency whose Director then retired from the agency to become a consultant to Maranatha. Such a convenient and profitable relationship between a County employee and a developer may not be illegal but it should be.
The primary grant given to Maranatha was based on the condition that an historic structure on the site would be restored. It was a stretch from the onset to consider Maranatha eligible for a “Restore NY” grant (ahead of worthy downtown revitalization projects) but when the barn was pulled down by ropes and a tractor, restoring the barn began to look like a transparent ruse to gain access to public funds. Claims of inadvertent damage to the barn as justification for its destruction are not supported in any way by the evidence. A review of documents obtained under FOIL found no insurance claims, no request for compensation made to the “guilty” contractor, no inspection record, no photos and no reports describing the damage. From a documentation perspective the damage never happened, yet the developer was allowed to spend the public money intended for restoration on other things. What the things are is unclear but it would appear that the money was not used to make loan payments, pay overdue utility bills or make the payments in lieu of taxes granted by Schoharie County Industrial Development Agency. The money is gone and the bills are still due.
The Town of Richmondville made the transfer of public money possible by acting as an agent for the funding. Town officials kept the money flowing despite internal documents, including emails, that warned of financial irregularities, funds released without appropriate authorization and double billing. With absolutely no evidence of the alleged damage to the barn, Town officials kept submitting signed vouchers on behalf of the developer and channeling money to her from State agencies. Town officials signed and submitted hundreds of thousands of dollars in vouchers for what was termed “reconstruction” work, despite the fact that the barn was first neglected, then demolished.
Richmondville Town officials have feigned surprise and plead ignorance to the financial and community disaster that Maranatha represents but they are not being truthful. They knew of the problems with the project from Day One. They knew first hand about ever changing and nebulous design and business plans. They were made aware of inaccurate and incomplete environmental and site plan reviews. They off-handedly dismissed archaeological reviews that warned of significant negative impacts, they swallowed absurd jobs creation promises and they failed to ask for any meaningful evidence that an implausible business plan would not end up as the abject failure it was.
Public officials failed to even remotely exercise due diligence and ignored the obvious – Maranatha was a poorly conceived and executed project that should never have been given millions in public funds. Now that the worst case scenario has played out we can only hope the same public officials who bumbled their way through a multi-million dollar boondoggle can somehow limit further damage to the tax payers and help prevent another large, vacant structure from blighting the landscape and highlighting our embarrassing lack of professional leadership.
Bob Nied
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