A Conversation with Orange County IDA Executive Director Bill Fioravanti

A Conversation with Orange County IDA Executive Director Bill Fioravanti

The embattled Orange County Industrial Development Agency is in the midst of implementing reforms in response to a corruption scandal that rocked the agency and the county’s business community last year with guilty pleas by two of its chief administrative officers and a member of its Board of Directors.

Shortly after the three individuals— Orange County IDA Managing Director Vincent Cozzolino, IDA Chief Executive Officer Laurie Villasuso and Board Director Edward Diana—agreed to repay the IDA approximately $1.27 million in restitution in September 2021 as part of plea agreements that afforded them no jail time for their acts of corruption, the IDA hired Bill Fioravanti as its new executive director. The guilty pleas were the result of a joint investigation by the Orange County District Attorney’s office, the State Comptroller’s office and the New Windsor Police Department.

Fioravanti, who was serving as interim executive director of the IDA shortly after the scandal broke in March 2001 at the direction of Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, was appointed to permanent status by the IDA Board of Directors in October of last year. Since then, Fioravanti has been working with the Orange County IDA Board of Directors, chaired by Mike Torelli, to institute new policies and procedures aimed at bringing more transparency to its operations, as well as restore the public trust in the organization. The Orange County Legislature had voted unanimously to remove the prior Board of Directors in the early days of the scandal.

Fioravanti had served since May 2018 as Orange County’s Director of Economic Development up until his permanent appointment as IDA Executive Director this past fall. Previously, the City of Newburgh resident was the Director of Business Attraction for the Orange County Partnership for more than four years. He also has served as the Associate Executive Director of the YMCA of Middletown and the executive director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Orange and Sullivan Counties.

Real Estate In-Depth: You were recently named Executive Director of the Orange County IDA after splitting time as Interim IDA Director and as Economic Development Director for Orange County. What are your chief short-term goals in respect to returning public trust in the scandal-ridden agency?

Fioravanti: I think really it is all about openness. There was a time when this agency was more closed-off from its partners and from members of the public and I think you are going to see an immediate about face in that regard. Obviously, we operate under General Municipal Laws and we have to have open meetings. We have to be clear about what is on our agendas and you will see all that from us. We are continuing to work with the Board Chair and the entire Board (of Directors) to ensure transparency in all the actions taken by the Board.

Frankly, I am a bit of a known commodity in the county and the region and I think people know what I am about, that I am about community development and economic development. It is not economic development at any cost. It is what is best for the county, the municipalities and the residents and our businesses as well. So, I believe that played a part in my appointment that people know what they get with me. Transparency is something we are going to work on every day; working to restore the public’s trust.

Real Estate In-Depth: What are some of the reforms the new IDA Board of Directors have instituted and what other measures do you expect to implement in the near future to increase transparency and improve efficiencies at the IDA?

Fioravanti: Well, we are certainly strictly adhering to the guidelines, not just the GML (General Municipal Law), but the Authorities Budget Office that really oversees public authorities like ours. There are very strict guidelines for your website, what needs to be posted and when, transparency of projects, documents, communications and things like that. In addition, in terms of annual reporting, (there are guidelines) on projects that received incentives and what milestones they have to reach in terms of jobs created and such. We need to ensure that there is complete transparency and accountability in those regards. So, we have a new General Counsel that we recently hired—Susan Katzoff of the law firm Bousquet Holstein, PLLC of Syracuse. Frankly, I think this plays into your question, you are going to see us re-procure every service we have here. Whether it is legal counsel, we also do local labor audits of local labor (hiring) requirements we have, everything down to cleaning you will see us re-procure everything so that the public knows that there are no favors, there are no preferences or preferential treatment. Everything is on the up and up. The same thing goes for our projects. There is annual reporting and all of that is completely transparent.

Other than that, the Board is operating in a way that is very open. We invite our partners in the region and in the state, whether it is the foreign trade zone, the Orange County Partnership, (Orange County) Chamber of Commerce, we do want to have a symbiotic relationship and seamless coordination (with these organizations). I think that is something that Orange County has always done a tremendous job of. No matter what is going on behind the scenes, we have a very well-run economic development machine and we all work very well together to get deals done. I think Orange County is known for getting deals done and it is not always that easy. Not everything we have done has been slam dunks, but we come together to make sure it is in the right project in the right place and that the right support and resources are there.

Editor’s note: Fioravanti then addressed some conflict of issue matters that surfaced as part of the corruption investigation.

There were, actually, very loose conflict of interest policies on forms that were completed and this Board months ago passed new (stricter) conflict of interest policies. (While he noted that conflict of interest regulations would not have prevented the actions of the past staff and Board Director, he did note that you also need “leadership that you can count on and believe in, with integrity and I think that was the main criteria when the County Legislature was looking for a new slate of Board Directors were ethics and a lack of conflicts and people that were here to do the right thing. And I think that when they made their next big step with rebuilding the organization by hiring me, I think that was in mind as well.”

Real Estate In-Depth: After guilty pleas, the IDA was reimbursed more than $1 million by former IDA staff and a member of the Board of Directors. There have been some discussions at previous IDA sessions of possible further actions to be taken in connection with the corruption scandal. Can you provide an update?

Fioravanti: I won’t elaborate much on this because it is a legal case and quite frankly because it is not my focus. I am really focused on moving this agency forward in attracting businesses and growing the economy. Obviously, it is a legitimate concern. Of course, there was the Office of the State Comptroller’s report that was done in conjunction with the District Attorney so we have a lot of recommendations and problems that were outlined in that report and the Orange County Legislature recently put out a report so we use that as a basis (for change) as well. Based upon that information and all of the documents and everything we collected for those investigations, the Board did as I mentioned previously, hire a new Legal Counsel, who is advising us on these matters; working with the County Attorney’s Office, who has been our Interim Counsel since the transition of leadership. The Board has authorized at its recent Board meeting a review by our new Legal Counsel of possible claims and implementation of any required action.

Editor’s Note: When asked if those possible claims involve any legal claim in connection with the corruption scandal, Fioravanti responded, “Yes, like a civil proceeding essentially. I think we all know what was done and what was the extent and we are talking millions of dollars (in addition to the restitution funds received by the IDA). “There were more expenses that were incurred as the result of the illegitimate actions of the prior administration. So, to any extend that is recoverable, I think that is what the (IDA) Board will be considering and again our new Legal Counsel will lead us through that (review),” Fioravanti said.

Real Estate In-Depth: Understandably, the IDA saw a decrease in activity as it reorganized its operations. Are you beginning to see new projects coming before the IDA for consideration and are you working cooperatively with other economic development organizations, including the Orange County Partnership, to advance new development ventures in the county?

Fioravanti: The simple answer is “Yes, absolutely.” We are seeing a lot of activity. We do have some potential applications in the pipeline from business attractions and expansions we have spoken to. But, the longer play on that is, just as you asked, working with our partners in Orange County and the region—our economic development partners—to create new opportunities. This Board is clear that they are pro-business. They want to incentivize good projects that are deserving and we want to do it the right way. We want them to be good partners that will be accountable and will do what they commit to be doing in terms of job creation and the other guidelines. But, I am excited to say that (investor) interest has started to ramp up for sure. Again, we are going to work with the Orange County Partnership and our other partners, including Empire State Development, to help develop new opportunities. Orange County is always very competitive, we are in the game on a lot of great projects and I expect that to continue to be the same going forward.

Real Estate In-Depth: The Orange County IDA operated a number of Accelerators in New Windsor, Middletown and Newburgh. Is the IDA looking to exit the Accelerator business or will it continue to operate some of these small business Accelerator locations?

Fioravanti: You are already seeing us downsize some of our Accelerator operations by attrition as our roster of businesses start to fade and our leases expire in various locations. To put it in perspective, the Board of Directors approved in October our 2022 fiscal budget and it represented a $2.3-million reduction in expenses and that was without shutting down the Accelerator program, just by attrition what has receded and cutting all the management expenses related to them. Galileo (Technology Group, the firm previously in charge of management of the IDA Accelerator) was due $880,000 in 2021 for just managing the Accelerator program… So, just cutting those expenses, mostly around the management of the program, was a tremendous cost savings.

I think you are going to see us continue the Accelerators sure. I think that with whatever the IDA does, we are looking to make smart, calculated investments in economic development. We are looking at the Accelerator locations on a case-by-case basis. There were obvious decisions which had to be made. For example, in Highland Falls where there was a supposed Artificial Intelligence Accelerator and we were renting a former bank there for several months and there were zero tenants. (Editor’s Note: The IDA has extricated itself from several of its leases at the Highland Falls property) … I will tell you our top concern in any of these locations are the businesses that are in there. Most of them are really hard-working people with dreams that the Accelerator was really supposed to be supporting. So, we are trying to support them, but we don’t have the same staff as GTG… On a skeleton crew we are trying to do the best we can. I think you are going to see us not wanting to be landlords. So, as our valid leases expire, we are going to try and work with the landlords and those sub-tenants (and have them do direct leases with the landlord) and support them when we can.

Editor’s Note: Fioravanti concluded the interview by saying that the IDA in the future hopes to duplicate its involvement in the redevelopment of a former prison site in Warwick into a thriving commercial center. The IDA was reimbursed a total of $2.5 million of its $3-million in financing of the Warwick Valley Office and Technology Corporate Park. The IDA’s net investment of $500,000 has transformed the property into a cutting-edge commercial hub that has produced revenue and hundreds of new jobs for the town and the county.

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