Dan Hust | Democrat
CARLOS ORELLANA TRANSLATED Carmen Quintanilla’s Spanish into English during Thursday’s public hearing on Ideal Snacks’ application to be included in the Empire Zone. Quintanilla worked at Ideal until she was sidelined by injury.
Application no 'EZ' process at Ideal
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Ideal Snacks’ bid to re-enter the Empire Zone business incentive program took several steps forward Thursday, but not before facing stinging criticism from several public speakers.
Union representative Jen Fuentes, immigrants’ advocate Carlos Orellana, Liberty Lanes owner Bob Fix, South Fallsburg pastor Sylvia Santos, and former Ideal employees Carmen Quintanilla and Osmar Ayola each told county legislators about their issues with the Liberty company during the public hearing on creating an Empire Zone around Ideal’s factory.
Ideal CFO Joe Talmage, however, preceded the critical speakers, and he spoke of the company’s need to meet competitive challenges, which would be aided by the tax breaks the Empire Zone affords.
Indeed, Ideal’s return to the Empire Zone (it was forced to decertify itself after the company changed hands in 2005) is predicated on being listed with the zone as a “regionally significant project.”
“We’re a very significant force in the local economy,” Talmage said.
That fact was undisputed, but his successors at the Legislature’s podium felt it did not alone justify benefits.
Fuentes, who is also president of the Workers Rights Law Service, said Ideal employees had charged company supervisors with intimidation. Save for Fix, that was the focus of every speaker.
Santos passed around a letter from Ideal attorney Henri Shawn warning her to stop defaming an Ideal supervisor, while Quintanilla and Ayola speaking in Spanish and being translated by Orellana claimed they were harassed and humiliated on and off the job.
Fix never worked for Ideal but owns the property right next door Liberty Lanes which he said the company had wished to purchase for expansion.
Instead, he related, Ideal never consummated the deal but used his parking lot for its trucks and storage.
“It’s not Ideal Snacks, it’s Ideal Stinks,” he told listeners.
Shawn said he had come to listen himself but was compelled to speak after Ideal’s accusers were finished.
“The employees are part of the family,” he said, pointing out the company’s Christmas party, where every worker gets a gift and can invite their families. “Ideal Snacks… has a tremendously high retention rate.”
He added that fired employees were justly terminated but that that shouldn’t even be an issue at a hearing like this.
Shawn also confirmed that Ideal would like to purchase Liberty Lanes but claimed the price escalated from $1 million to $5.5 million.
He pointed out that legislators took a tour of the factory two days prior and had “free access to talk to anyone they wanted to.”
Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt was one of the people on the tour (which the media was barred from attending by Ideal).
“It’s quite an impressive facility,” said Hiatt, acknowledging it generates a lot of local income.
But, he added, the tour “wasn’t quite unfettered,” claiming he was never let out of top officials’ sight.
More importantly to Hiatt, “I didn’t see or speak to anyone who was from Sullivan County when they got that job.” (Talmage, however, said 99 percent of Ideal’s employees are Sullivan County residents.)
Hiatt didn’t see more than about 50 of Ideal’s 230 workers, which he said did not include any “non-Hispanics.”
Hiatt, who brought a translator with him on the tour, expressed concerns about what he feels are a lack of benefits given to employees, wondering why Empire Zone tax benefits should be given to the company.
“Even Ebenezer Scrooge gave Bob Cratchit a gift every Christmas,” the legislator remarked.
Fellow Legislator Jodi Goodman, who represents the district in which Ideal sits, felt Hiatt was unfairly targeting Ideal and throwing in unrelated barbs about the ethnicities of Ideal’s workforce.
She acknowledged Hiatt’s contention that the Village of Liberty is in litigation with Ideal over sewage issues, but she added that the village’s attorney on the matter had urged legislators to not bring it up during Empire Zone discussions.
“We need them,” she quoted attorney Richard Gross as saying.
Legislator David Sager said he felt for the aggrieved parties but did not see how their concerns could be remedied in this particular forum nor did he feel Ideal is unfit for such benefits.
“This is not the ideal scenario for Sullivan County,” he acknowledged, “but something is better than nothing.”
Legislator Leni Binder agreed, fearing that Ideal will pull out of the area if it cannot secure Empire Zone benefits.
Legislator Frank Armstrong said he is glad Ideal Snacks is in Liberty but asked that officials keep in mind the needs of the “most vulnerable in our community.”
Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis pointed out that the public hearing was not meant to debate wages, benefits and working conditions at Ideal nor to write the company a check.
Indeed, Ideal still has to be recertified as an Empire Zone business even with a zone existing around it, and benefits won’t be forthcoming until Ideal meets state-set targets for employment and investment (including creating 50 jobs over the next five years).
Nevertheless, Hiatt, Armstrong, and Legislator Kathy LaBuda voted against a resolution to designate an Empire Zone around Ideal. The measure thus passed 6-3.
The discussion continued into the subsequent Empire Zone Administrative Board (ZAB) meeting, where board member Eileen Haworth Weil expressed misgivings.
“I feel uncomfortable because I feel in the last couple of months it’s been rushed through,” she told the rest of the ZAB.
Plus, she wants to see Empire Zone benefits go to companies that have a definitive need for them.
Fellow ZAB member Ted Pilonero said he is “not convinced that a business like Ideal Snacks is advantageous to this county,” questioning the low wages and lack of benefits given to some employees.
“However, it is already here,” he continued, “and we have a bigger liability of it failing rather than giving it tax benefits.”
ZAB Chair and County Manager David Fanslau thought a compromise could be worked out where Ideal, as a precondition to re-entering the Empire Zone, would commit to a locally-preferential hiring policy.
“It’s not the sort of thing you can automatically say ‘yes’ to,” replied Shawn, arguing that Ideal should be able to hire who it thinks is best for the job.
Realizing that such a requirement would likely be unenforceable in this scenario, Fanslau acknowledged that “from what I can see in the application, Ideal Snacks qualifies for Empire Zone benefits.”
Haworth Weil and Jim Bertholf, however, voted against two resolutions to designate Ideal as a regionally significant project (the only way it can get back into the Empire Zone program). Both resolutions nevertheless passed.
Thus, Ideal Snacks is on track to be back in the Empire Zone by later this year, should the state sign off on its end.