The quarter billion dollar drones of New York

Article as written by Michael “Vass” Vasquez at Binghamton Political Buzz on April 9, 2016 ***

Our multi-year on-going effort to investigate the Drone Testing Site [Drone Site] at Griffiss International Airport, as it relates to the accountability of the politicians that advocated for the Site’s creation and the use of taxpayer funds for that creation, continues. It is a subject that remains largely unaddressed by the major media, and has been mostly forgotten by the politicians themselves. But such lack of oversight appears to not be working to the advantage of the public at this time, at a cost to taxpayers of a quarter billion dollars.

Assemblyman Brindisi, State Senator Griffo, Rep. Hanna

On March 30, 2016, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi was asked on WUTQ’s Talk of the Town program about the NY State Budget, funding for a hospital, and the status of the Drone Site. In that live call-in, Assemblyman Brindisi stated that the Drone Site had grown, including at least one company from Canada.

Previously, as we have reported, Assemblyman Brindisi had claimed that some 468 jobs and $10 million in tax revenue would be generated by the Drone Site. His claims of future success of the site were not alone. NY State Senator Joe Griffo and Rep. Richard Hanna also made claims, from 2013 through 2014, of job creation in the range of 468 – 2,744 jobs and tax revenues in the range of $10 million – $180 million.

In 2015, extensive research and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed that a total of 6 full-time positions had been created from the Drone Site. At that time over $6 million in State and Federal funding from taxpayer dollars had been invested in the Drone Site, with future funding planned. Assemblyman Brindisi, State Senator Joe Griffo, and Rep. Richard Hanna would not respond to our requests for comment on the status of the Drone Site or their prior public promises at that time.

After the comments on WUTQ, we immediately sent out letters requesting comment again to Assemblyman Brindisi, Senator Griffo and Rep. Hanna. We requested confirmation of the number of companies that had moved to the Rome, NY region to work at the Drone Site; the number of jobs created since 2015; if additional taxpayer funds had been allocated or requested for the Drone Site; and any revenues known to have been generated. We received no response.

We again requested FOIA information on the jobs created and revenues for New York from the NY Department of Labor – no records were found and no other Agency of NY is known to have any records as we were told. We are awaiting a response from the NTIA on the FOIA request sent to them. Our request to the Office of Mayor Jacqueline Izzo of Rome, NY, and a follow-up phone call from us to the Office, received no response (though we did receive a response from a different Administration in 2015). Additionally we called the offices of all 3 elected officials to again request a response for this article. Assemblyman Brindisi responded to that call via email.

Assemblyman Brindisi reiterated that he was aware of 1 company having moved into the region to work at the Drone Site at Griffiss International Airport. He confirmed that he had not requested additional funding in the current NY Budget for the Drone Site. In addition he referred us to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Corinne Ramey on the drone industry.

The article notes projections that the drone industry will generate $21 billion from global commercial drone use by 2020; and indicated that PRO DRONES USA, LLC. had joined the Griffiss Drone Site. The Ramey article also noted that $250 million in taxpayer funds were allocated to the Drone Site in December 2015 via Upstate Revitalization Initiative.

Assemblyman Brindisi did not answer our questions on future projected growth, jobs created, or if his office is following any other activity at the Drone Site he had previously advocated for. Assemblyman Brindisi did not provide us any information, besides the link to the one article, to further investigate the progress on his promised job creation and tax revenue statements. Assemblyman Brindisi declined to provide any other comment for this article on this subject. Again we note that Assemblyman Brindisi was the only elected official we attempted to contact to provide any response.

By the time of the response from Assemblyman Brindisi we had already sent an email to AVYON, the Canadian parent company of PRO DRONES USA LLC. We had already requested a timeframe on when the reported 5 jobs projected would officially start; if additional jobs were planned; and a projection of revenues to be generated by PRO DRONES USA over the next 10 years – the span of time that PRO DRONES USA would be absolved of paying NY State taxes as part of the START-UP NY deal to get the company to enter NY State. At the time of this article we have received no response.

In conclusion we are left with the following questions and answers. It appears that while Assemblyman Brindisi, State Senator Griffo, and Rep. Hanna were very public in gaining attention on promised benefits to New York State in creating a Drone Testing Site at Griffiss International Airport, they have since preferred to not speak about the subject after more than $256 million in taxpayer dollars have been spent on the project in 2 1/2 years. It appears that a total of 11 jobs, have or will be at some point, created since August of 2015. The total of tax revenues being generated from the Drone Site may be negligible or non-existent – if the tax exemption from START-UP NY is included – but cannot be fully confirmed at this time.

To put this into some context, the cost per job created by the Obama Stimulus was disputably between $185,000 to $230,769 per job (there are many calculations suggested for this value and all are in dispute, but this range is a possibly over simplistic value to make a comparison with). Not accounting for the decade long loss of tax revenue to NY State from START-UP NY, and looking only at the cost to taxpayers from State and Federal funding already allocated, at this time the cost-per-job for the Drone Site is $23,273,000 per job. That is also assuming all 5 projected jobs from PRO DRONES USA LLC are in place at this moment in addition to the 6 jobs existing in 2015. The benefit to NY State in the Utica/Rome metropolitan region in terms of unemployment is 0.15% thus far (or a change from 5.6% to 5.45% unemployment). The reduction in unemployment for all of NY State is infinitesimal.

Given the reality of what has occurred thus far, it is not surprising that now Assemblyman Brindisi, State Senator Griffo, and Rep. Hanna have shied from publicly bringing up the Drone Site or responding to requests to seek more information. Even the most meager and conservative promise made by these politicians – 468 jobs and $10 billion in tax revenues – is exponentially larger than the actual results to date. Even the excuse to claim that global commercial drone use will be projected to hit $21 billion in another 13 years is unsatisfying as no guarantee exists that any significant portion of those funds will be from the US or more importantly from the Drone Site in New York. As an example, even AVYON produces its drones outside of New York State and the US from what we can determine at this time.

Which brings us to the question of accountability. Are elected officials expected or required to be accountable for the promised jobs and taxpayer dollars spent on programs they advocated for? Should politicians be absolved from following up on the progress of the projects they advocated for and spent taxpayer funds on? Is it reasonable for elected politicians to gamble taxpayer money on projected hopes in amounts in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars, and then those same politicians evade the apparent failures of that gamble?

It can be said that the future holds possibilities we cannot see today. But politics is grounded in the reality of the moment, and judged by the actions of the past. When this is lost in the fog of 30 second soundbites and political evasion, the results have been Solyndra, A123 Systems, Cash for Clunkers and a host of other failures.

About the Author

Michael Vass
Born in 1968, a political commentator for over a decade. Has traveled the U.S. and lived in Moscow and Tsblisi, A former stockbroker and 2014 Congressional candidate. Passionate about politics with emphasis on 1st and 2nd Amendments.

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