ALBANY — A state oversight board controlled by the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has authorized spending $485 million to complete a solar panel production plant, the centerpiece of Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" economic development program.
The Public Authority Control Board voted Wednesday amid questions about the future of the solar industry after a major player last month filed for bankruptcy court protection, a lack of details about how the money will be spent and uncertainty about the public benefit from the project.
The $750 million SolarCity plant being built with public funds is nearing completion and the money approved by the board is believed to be the balance of the state's commitment to not only build the million-square-foot factory but also to fit it with manufacturing and other equipment.
The funding was authorized with little comment from the board. Of the five members, only those representing the governor, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans get a vote. The two members from the minority caucuses have only an advisory role. Only one of the five members attended Wednesday's meeting. Board rules allow them to send designated representatives in their place.
As a condition for his support, Assemblyman James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat on the board, requested monthly updates on the project's expenses to go to the Empire State Development Corp. and the Public Authorities Control Board, according to Ashley Ryle, who represented him at Wednesday's meeting.
Following the meeting, Assembly Democrats released a statement saying the updates provide "an extra level of public disclosure and accountability."
The lone board member in attendance was Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, a Cattaraugus County Republican. He said the project is critically important to the western New York economy.
"We have a little bit of concern that it hasn't been that clear how the funding is going to work," he said. "Our concerns are very basic."
Fort Schuyler Management Corp., a not-for-profit arm of the State University of New York, has not responded to inquiries from The Associated Press with specifics of how the money is being budgeted, what equipment is being purchased and who the vendors are. Asia and Europe, where most of the world's solar modules are produced, are also primary sources of manufacturing equipment.
In the meantime, word about the status of the Buffalo plant has come largely from SolarCity executives briefing investors during quarterly earnings calls.
In a February update, CEO Lyndon Rive told industry analysts that the timetable for equipping the plant has slipped, and some of the capital expenditure for equipment will be in 2017.
SolarCity, whose chairman is PayPal and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, took hits to its share price earlier this month when it reported losing $283 million in the first quarter of this year and again scaled back projections for future business. Last month, competitor SunEdison's financial troubles forced it to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection. SolarCity has committed to investing $5 billion over 10 years in New York state, hiring almost 1,500 workers at the Buffalo plant for five years and employing at least 2,000 more people across the state in exchange for use of the state-owned plant.
Cuomo said earlier that he believed the control board would approve the new funding despite a federal investigation of economic development programs in the state, including one of his former top aides and a lobbyist with longtime connections to Cuomo.
Following news of the investigation, Cuomo's counsel said all decisions regarding the Buffalo Billion would first be reviewed by Bart Schwartz, the independent investigator hired by Cuomo to conduct an internal review.
"Well, there are questions about what one or two people did. All right. Let's find out what those one or two people did. We'll get the facts. We'll then respond accordingly," he said. "If somebody did something wrong, I'll be the first to throw the book at them. But that doesn't go to the essence of the Buffalo Billion program."