Thursday, January 07, 2010

A (K)nown (R)cognized (F)lunky

According to the Observer, State Senator Bill Perkins really went after ESDC for its use of the consultant AKRF in its blight study if the area in and around the Columbia University expansion footprint: "State Senator Bill Perkins is apparently not happy about the state's choice of consultants.One consultant, specifically: AKRF, the New York-based firm that
has established itself as the unchallenged king of environmental review in the city and state, dominating the field of government contracts."

The problem is two fold. In the first place, AKRF has a virtual monopoly on this work-and, as with every monopoly, the lack of competition erodes the quality of their work product. Secondly, as the Observer points out, this is a multi-million dollar consulting business where certain results are being looked for: "But regardless of whether a blight study firm serves two masters there might be more structural issues at hand. Much like credit ratings agencies, firms that do blight studies are paid by those who want favorable ratings: the state only brings on a firm to do a blight study when it wants a finding of blight, an implied disincentive for any firm that might repeatedly fail to find blighted conditions."

Or, as Judge Catterson might have phrased it: "the fix is in" when this kind of collusion and self serving consulting is being done. It is even more egregious given that the statute on blight is so amorphous to begin with: "And the bluster over AKRF might be quibbling over details: The standard of what constitutes blight, a necessary step for eminent domain in economic development projects, is very low. It would not take a biased firm to find the few cracked sidewalks and vacant apartments needed to show "blight," at least based on the definition of the term that has typically been upheld by the courts in New York State."

All of which means that it is now more incumbent than ever for the legislature to, first tighten up the blight statute to afford much greater protection to property owners; and, secondly, for the eminent domain process to be made more equitable by creating an independent consulting mechanism so that favored consultants aren't always designated to do the state's or a developer's bidding.

In fact, we would argue that the state should be required to pay for an independent review of environmental and blight matters-and award the money to threatened property owners so that they can choose the consultants. This would create a situation where there would be at least two separate opinions that the courts might consider if a project was challenged. The current bag job scenario is no longer tenable-and the AKRF monopoly must be broken up in the interests of both fairness and good public policy.