The first of three public hearings on the terms of the previously secret deal were held today.
Members of a New York City council committee denounced terms of the recent Amazon HQ2 deal in the first of three public hearings being held about the plans.
“We are not in the business of corporate welfare here at the city council,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, referencing the up to $3 billion in government subsidies the company will receive. Johnson, one of the fiercest critics of the deal, spoke at the council’s Committee on Economic Development hearing on Wednesday at City Hall.
Amazon says the move will bring at least 25,000 jobs to the city over the next decade and $27.5 billion in state and city revenue in the next 25 years. Johnson contested these numbers at the hearing, saying they warrant an outside independent verification beyond the report the state commissioned.
Johnson and other council members were upset about being denied oversight of the plan — but that wasn’t on Amazon alone. Both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo worked together with Amazon to bypass the standard review processes that would have given the city council a chance to veto or even review the deal. The hearing was the first opportunity council members had to publicly and directly vent their frustrations to key people behind the negotiations.
While city council members have threatened to throw a wrench in the process, they’re limited in what they can do. A five-member state board is expected to vote on some aspects of the deal in the new year. Some council members are hoping they can influence new appointees to the board to vote against the plan, but it’s not clear how realistic that outcome is.
One leader from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, James Patchett, who helped work on the deal, took the brunt of the tough questions on Wednesday morning.
“Whose interest do you think you’re representing in making this deal?” asked Johnson.
“One hundred percent New York City,” said Patchett. “I fundamentally believe this is a good deal for New York City or I wouldn’t be sitting here today.” Patchett cited a Quinnipiac University poll that showed 60 percent of registered voters in Queens supported Amazon’s move — although that poll only counted eligible voters, which could have excluded many members of the borough’s large immigrant community.
“There’s plenty of people who feel the interests of New York City were not served,” retorted Johnson.
Two Amazon executives — Brian Huseman, a VP of public policy, and Holly Sullivan, worldwide head of economic development — were also in the audience and faced a grilling from council members who pressed the company on several topics. They asked why Amazon made the city sign an NDA to keep details of the deal secret, how many jobs it would reserve for New York City residents and if it would dedicate $500 million of the government subsidies it’s receiving toward public housing.
Amazon’s representatives didn’t commit to dedicating any future government subsidies to public projects. When pressed on how many jobs they would promise New Yorkers over imported talent, they said it was too early to say. They called the NDA “standard practice” and that they needed it to share confidential company data with government agencies.
While Amazon’s executives were successful in mostly sticking to the corporate script, at times they sounded out of touch. Johnson criticized the company for making no mention of the potential impact on the city’s crumbling public transportation infrastructure, aside from a plan to build a helipad.
“Amazon will be paying for the helipad,” said Huseman — a clarification that was met with sarcastic laughs from the crowd.
“I would hope so!” said Johnson.
The next public hearing will be held some time in January, although a specific date has not been set. After initially declining to confirm he would attend that gathering, Huseman eventually said he would be there.
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