A New York State Assemblyman, who has ties to the natural gas industry as an attorney for the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), denies he played any role in securing valuable tax breaks for the Millennium Pipeline Company gas transmission line which has contributed to making the local property tax rates among the highest in the nation.
A 2009 report put the tax rate on an $85,000 home in Chemung County at 2.3 percent, more than twice the national average. Local resident, Al Edwards, of Horseheads, N.Y., said, “The Millennium Pipeline is based in Orange County, N.Y., and employs no one in Chemung County. The Chemung County IDA made all this happen under the watchful eye of its legal counsel, Assemblyman Tom O’Mara, and all the Chemung county legislators. Is this the same Assemblyman who claims to put taxpayers first?”
In an interview with DCBureau, Assemblyman Thomas F. O’Mara denied his law firm had ties to the gas drilling industry in New York State. O’Mara said that he played “no role” in getting the Millennium Pipeline tax breaks and such policy decisions came from the Industrial Development Board. “They make the policy decisions; I just advise them as any attorney would,” O’Mara said.
Documents obtained by DCBureau show O’Mara advises the IDA about matters that have a direct effect on natural gas drillers, including reviewing subleases that would allow gas drillers to tie into the Millennium Pipeline.
Assemblyman O’Mara said he had no responsibility, as a lawyer for the Chemung County IDA, for Millennium Pipeline Company tax breaks that have resulted in making Chemung County one of the ten highest tax counties in the United States, according to the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C.
DCBureau’s efforts to reach Chemung County Executive Director, George Miner, for comment on O’Mara’s role and the tax breaks given to the Millennium Pipeline Company that have cost Chemung County tax revenue were unsuccessful. Miner did not return repeated phone calls over several weeks. A receptionist in the IDA office said, “[Miner] was unavailable because he was constantly on his way to meetings.”
O’Mara is in a race with Democratic candidate and Tompkins County legislator Pam Mackesey. O’Mara and Mackesey are running to fill the 53rd State Senate District seat being vacated by Republican George Winner, who was a partner in a law firm with strong and controversial ties to the gas drilling industry. Winner was responsible for legislation favorable to the industry.
When asked if his law firm represented gas drillers, O’Mara told DCBureau he did not discuss the names of clients, but he told DCBureau his law firm had no gas drilling clients. He insisted he was in favor of members of the New York legislature revealing potential conflicts of interests. No such legislation has passed, and members of the New York Senate and Assembly are not required to reveal law firm clients and other possible conflicts of interest.
The Millennium Pipeline Company is crucial to moving natural gas from Marcellus Shale wells. O’Mara was present on April 9, 2010, for a meeting of the Chemung County IDA that voted to allow local well drillers to tie into the pipeline. The record shows that he acted as attorney for the IDA in a new sublease approved by the Chemung County IDA that could bring gas royalties to property owners in Horseheads, N.Y., because the IDA approved a link to wells in Horseheads to the Millennium Pipeline. O’Mara helped review the IDA-approved lease between Anschutz Gas Drilling Company and the Millennium Pipeline. Local media reported that the sublease would allow two Anschutz gas wells to access the pipeline.
The burgeoning natural gas industry in New York considers O’Mara a friend. He recently wrote in a blog in the local media, “It is that my position on the future of the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry has been clear: We shouldn’t ignore the potential for job creation and other economic benefits, but environmental safety comes first. The protection of our natural resources is paramount.”
Some Chemung County residents, with some of the highest county tax rates in the United States, complain a major reason for their high taxes is a sweetheart tax break deal the IDA gave the Millennium Pipeline Company. Critics say that local libraries, fire departments and other county entities are suffering, and that local services would be receiving far more money if the company was paying its fair share.
Stretching 182 miles from Corning, N.Y., to Rockland County, N.Y., the Millennium Pipeline was marketed to local communities as a job maker in New York’s economically-depressed Southern Tier. But, in recent years, local officials in Chemung County towns began to complain that the deal given the pipeline company was hurting local services. For example, in the town of Big Flats, N.Y., assessor William Torp reported the 2009 assessment roll had the smallest increase in total taxable property values since he joined the annual reassessment.
Torp said there was no new value in the 2009 assessment roll, and he blamed that on decisions made by the Chemung County IDA. “The primary reason for this relative decline in predicted taxable property values is traceable to recent decisions by the Chemung County IDA,” Torp said in his tax report for 2009.
“Decisions by this agency have had, either directly or indirectly, a significant negative impact on the town of Big Flats, the Horseheads school district, and the county itself. The value of IDA exempt property in the community jumped dramatically during the 2008-09 fiscal year by $18.784 million, a 53 percent increase.”
While Torp’s report did not specifically mention the Millennium Pipeline, Torp told a local reporter in 2009 the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement granted to the pipeline company by the Chemung County IDA is the primary reason for the loss of taxable property.
“They have a special deal with the county. In this community (Big Flats), for value, people are paying 3 percent of their property value per year in taxes,” Torp said.
“The last time I calculated it, the Millennium Pipeline, worth $57 million, is paying one percent or less. So what do you do? This is money that’s not appearing on the tax roll and it has an effect on the community…I’m all for bringing jobs in the community, but we should do some kind of cost-benefit analysis and see if there are actually jobs brought in,” he said.
O’Mara’s Democratic opponent, Tompkins County legislator Pam Mackesey, told DCBureau O’Mara’s work for the Chemung County IDA and the Millennium Pipeline is an “ethical lapse. Conflicts of interest are typical of our current state legislators and that is exactly what inspired me to run for state senate. We need representatives in Albany who remember who they’re there to serve: the people. Not corporations, not lobbyists, but the hard-working people of New York.”
Although O’Mara said he agrees the environment should be protected, he also said permits for gas drilling should resume. “This is one of the biggest issues we’re facing right now,” O’Mara said. “I’m a supporter of hopefully moving forward with the gas industry in New York State. It’s a huge economic concern. I do share the concerns with moving forward cautiously, with concern for the environment, but it must be based on the science. This cannot continue to be a political football thrown back and forth.”
The 53rd State Senate District includes Steuben, Yates, Schuyler and Chemung counties and the western half of Tompkins County, including the town and city of Ithaca.