Ideal Snacks divide legislators
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Legislator Ron Hiatt again found himself under fire Thursday for asking questions about Ideal Snacks, the Liberty snack manufacturer seeking re-entry into the Empire Zone.
During the Community and Economic Development Committee meeting of the Legislature, Empire Zone Coordinator Susan Jaffe presented a resolution to create the new Empire Zone around Ideal Snacks.
Legislators unanimously approved it in order to schedule a public hearing on the matter at 1:40 p.m. on Thursday, July 17 in the Government Center, after which the full Legislature will vote on whether or not to go through with the plan.
Ideal, which was forced to decertify itself from the Empire Zone program when the company changed hands three years ago, wants to once again have access to incentives and tax benefits available through the Empire Zone.
Since in the intervening years the Empire Zone’s boundaries have changed, Ideal is no longer within the Zone and must reapply as a “regionally significant project.” To qualify, it’s promising to create 50 jobs by 2013, of which 12 are anticipated to be created this August.
Legislators themselves must approve the creation of a Zone independent of the corridor that Liberty’s Empire Zone currently encompasses.
Hiatt is concerned that too many of Ideal’s factory workers are paid wages close to or at minimum and don’t get medical benefits (though they can increase salaries and obtain benefits by climbing the ranks, said company officials).
So he’s questioned working conditions at the plant, resulting in the promise of a tour by Jaffe and Ideal administrators, currently set for July 15. (A request to include the press was denied by Ideal.)
But it’s also resulted in some anger from Legislator Jodi Goodman, who worries that Hiatt’s concerns will give the company an undeserved bad reputation and undermine its presence in the community.
Indeed, Ideal’s chief financial officer, Joe Talmage, told legislators last month that getting Empire Zone benefits will be key to keeping the company here.
Both the Village and Town of Liberty have told county leaders that Ideal is an integral and welcome part of their business community.
“I think it would behoove us to support what the village and town support,” advised Goodman, who represents Liberty in District 6. “I think it would cost you more to hold it up than what you would gain.”
“When a town and a community request us to support them, I think we have to,” agreed Legislator Leni Binder, cautioning that Ideal could leave and a non-profit organization could buy the immense facility, only to turn it into a tax-exempt entity.
Legislators also felt Hiatt was unfairly targeting Ideal Snacks when his questions about Medicaid, salaries and benefits should be asked about every Zone participant.
Jaffe promised to get the info Hiatt requested (a request Legislator Alan Sorensen echoed), but the debate persisted.
“What would the cost be if these people had no employment at all?” wondered Sullivan County Visitors Association President Roberta Byron-Lockwood.
“That presupposes that they [employees] would have been here already,” Hiatt replied, intimating that a fair portion of Ideal’s workers moved here to take advantage of the employment opportunity.
Regardless, he said, “it’s just an inquiry. I’m not throwing rocks.”
Goodman, however, felt one was thrown when Hiatt asked if he could have an interpreter accompany him on the company tour.
“Your request for an interpreter is really out of line,” she angrily told Hiatt.
“[All] it intimates is that I don’t speak Spanish,” he replied, explaining that he wants to be able to ask questions of employees who may only speak Spanish.