There is now a new entity, the Albany County Land Bank Corporation, to address blight within Albany County. Community advocates and some politicians are not sitting in celebration, however, following the vote on Democratic Majority Leader Frank Commisso’s land-bank bill, which passed the Albany County Legislature on Feb. 10.
The vote left many community advocates, such as former Albany Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro, to view the seemingly spur-of-the-moment move as a political maneuver by Commisso. Advocates are questioning Commisso’s motives for what seems to be a 180-degree turnaround from his views on a land bank last year, when Albany County Legislator Christopher Higgins proposed a similar bill—and Commisso led its defeat.
“He just sees dollar signs in front of his face,” says Calsolaro.
At the time of the Higgins bill’s defeat, no money was officially available to fund land banks. Now, after a national settlement with five of the largest mortgage servicers —Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo—money is being allocated to formulate plans to combat urban blight.
“Now that he [Commisso] sees money is actually there, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman just last week spoke about expanding [the state’s number of sanctioned] land banks from 10 to 20, and that he has more money for land banks, Commisso thinks land bands are wonderful and [he] rushed a bill through because he sees the dollar signs,” says Calsolaro.
Despite suspicions of Commisso’s ulterior motives, a source in Commisso’s office says, “there are no loopholes for organizations, and we have meant all state regulations.”
Albany County Legislature Chairman Shawn Morris adds, “Although the bill did not pass through any legislation committees, there was a question-and-answer session [for the community] before the vote.” Morris says this puts to bed any claim that Commissso had violated state law. According to Morris, not every piece of legislation needs to go through a legislative committee, especially since this piece of legislation is not new.
“Calsolaro wants to criticize the legislation,” Morris says, “but he had 10 years as a member of Albany City Council to deal with blight. Blight didn’t happen overnight.”
“The vote against Higgins bill was purely political payback after the 2012 run for New York State Assembly seat, which both Higgins and Frank Comisso’s son, Frank Comisso Jr. ran for,” says Calsolaro. Both men lost in a landslide to Patricia Fahy.
Although Commisso voted against Higgins’ land-bank bill, he has been involved in blight type projects such as the 2007 proposal requesting approval of the Albany County Housing Trust Fund grant contracts totaling $304,700 for six projects to create or preserve 68 units of affordable housing, a proposal made long before any land bank bill was brewing.
Many critics of the new bill say it doesn’t ensure community involvement in decision making, and that Commisso’s board is handpicked with developers and insiders and not representative of the city as a whole. While Calsolaro says, “I don’t think anyone is bad on the board,” he does see the potential for favoritism and conflicts of interest in determining who is chosen to develop projects.
“I think it raises a lot of issues that should have been looked into by the county. . . . Once the land back gets up and running, it might seem like favorite or connected organizations that are on the land bank board” are receiving favorable treatment, says Calsolaro.