Off the Northway: Uncertainty stymies event for students
A three-day conference last year introduced maybe 40 students from the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Stillwater and Corinth high schools to their potential for nanotechnology careers.
The kids learned about the computer-related manufacturing jobs coming to the region. Organizers say they left excited about potential careers.
That’s good. One of the things they worry about at companies like GlobalFoundries is not having enough kids excited about working there.
By all accounts, the program was a success. The question now is whether it will ever happen again.
The schools would like to do it again but don’t have the money. The Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency paid for the first conference with a $30,000 grant to the BH-BL school district, using the rationale that it was paying for a form of workforce development.
The schools would like to hold another conference and open it to every school district in the county. The IDA, however, has balked at providing more money. Members of the IDA are afraid of running afoul of the state Authorities Budget Office.
The ABO, created in 2005 and strengthened under an authorities reform bill in 2009, is there to look over the shoulders of the state’s hundreds of public authorities and industrial development agencies, which — operating at least somewhat independently of municipal government — run everything from the toll-collecting Tri-Borough Bridge in New York City to the farmers market in Syracuse.
At the Saratoga County IDA, they chafe at being lumped in with the port, parking and bridge authorities of the world — and now the board members are nervous about facing criticism if it gives another grant for a nanotechnology conference. It might be beyond what IDAs are empowered to do.
The IDA’s core mission is to promote policies that create new jobs, though sometimes it’s just about retaining those already here when a company threatens to move away. In practice, it mostly means giving tax breaks to specific companies, but the Saratoga County IDA also has been giving out economic development grants.
Back in March, ABO Director David Kidera questioned the IDA’s authority to make an $85,000 grant to the town of Milton, a grant that was used to make major electrical upgrades at the Saratoga County Fairgrounds.
IDA Chairman Raymond Callanan sent back a letter defending the grant, but the state’s inquiry has left the IDA members looking over their shoulders.
This week, they postponed a decision on Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s request for another $30,000 for another nanotechnology conference this fall, to be open to students across the county.
Were the state to push, IDA lawyer Michael Toohey said, it may be hard to justify using industrial development money for an educational purpose.
“It’s very hard to stretch into our mission,” acknowledged IDA board member Art Johnson.
On the other hand, having such programs may help persuade additional high-tech companies to come here, thinking that at the least the seeds are being sown for a workforce of the future.
“A quality workforce is kind of the lifeblood of an economic development program,” said IDA Vice Chairman Richard Dunn.
In its response to the ABO, the IDA argues that state law gives it broad power within Saratoga County to “promote the economic welfare, recreational opportunities and prosperity of its inhabitants.” That includes the ability to give grants that help achieve those goals, the argument goes.
It’s worth noting that the IDA’s grants don’t come from tax money but from fees paid by the companies — including GlobalFoundries — that have received IDA assistance to locate or expand.
The IDA board postponed a decision on the BL-BL grant request until July, hoping maybe the ABO will give a clear signal in the interim.
That leaves the interested school districts — who are, as everyone knows, chopping teaching jobs to stay inside tax limits — without an obvious source of cash for special programs, even reasonably valuable ones that promote science and technology jobs.
Could the conference go on without the IDA money? BH-BL schools spokeswoman Christy Multer said, “I doubt it.”