Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of February 12, 2024

Date: February 16, 2024

by PPG Staff
Each week, PPG summarizes important takeaways from the major Buffalo Common Council meetings. We also include information from Council meetings related to our Community Agenda items.If you want to learn more about how the council meetings work and how you can get involved, check out our guide.

For this summary, we will focus on the Civil Service, Finance, Legislation, and Community Development Meetings. ‘Council Member’ is abbreviated as CM; ‘Council President’ as CP; ‘President Pro Tempore’ as PT; and ‘Majority Leader’ as ML.
The Civil Service Committee meeting was very brief. The committee heard about the appointments of 38 new members of the police department (mostly new academy graduates), including a crime scene technician; they also recommended approval of someone to oversee the city’s management software.
The Finance Committee received several financial reports and heard from Greg Szymanski, from the Comptroller’s office. Szymanski spoke about the city’s cash flow, and said that it was unlikely the city would receive the projected $3 million in cannabis licensing revenue. Rather, he suggested, the city will probably reap around $200,000 for the year. The dispensary licensing program has gone more slowly. “That’s missing a whole zero and a comma,” noted CM Nowakowski wryly.
Commissioner of Administration and Finance Delano Dowell spoke about the gap report, which is a quarterly document that shows the difference between the city’s budget projections and its actual expenditures. For example: as of the end of the first half of the 2023-2024 year, the city has paid out just $58,500 of its budgeted $400,000 Cultural and Anti-Violence funds. The city has received over 80% of its projected $176 million in property tax revenue.
This report does not, however, take into account either the recently settled police lawsuit (which will be a nearly $50 million expense) nor costs resulting from January’s snowstorm; those expenses were not accounted for in the city’s cost projections.
Currently, the city employs 2,420 workers, and has 330 vacant positions. Overtime costs are higher than expected. One of those unfilled jobs is the head of the Office of New Americans, and CM Rivera asked whether the city intended to fill that position. City Budget Director Raymour Nosworthy said that each department would have to review its own needs. “The question remains: Is this position a priority to the City of Buffalo?” pressed Rivera. “How long has the position been vacant?” He noted that Buffalo needs to continue making strides, for example in language access, in order to remain welcoming to new migrants. CM Nowakowski asked for city representatives to come speak to the council about filling this position.
Commissioner Dowell also presented the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) Report on the city’s use of American Rescue Plan funds. This report reflects how much of the Federal ARPA payment has been diverted from its originally planned use to “revenue replacement” for the city’s general budget. PT Bollman asked for the administration to provide the council members with a clear document explaining where and when and how the remaining funds, over $150 million (over 40% of the original funding) has been budgeted. This is something the council has asked for before, but not received. These funds must be contracted, or even better spent, by the end of this year.
CM Rivera noted that some of the money that had been sent out appeared to have gone to non-existent businesses and unregistered or defunct LLCs. “They didn’t appear to be businesses that we even knew existed in our districts,” he said, including one located in a long-vacant building. “Maybe there’s some reason that these individuals are getting funded that we don’t know,” CM Rivera continued, but if so, he said, the administration should come explain that.
“I’m just so concerned, and disturbed,” said CM Wyatt, when he reviewed how little money the city has actually sent out. 
CP Scanlon asked what would happen to any funds that are not committed or spent by the December deadline, and Commissioner Dowell said that he did not know. “We’ve never looked at the option of not being able to do it,” he said.
PPG speculates that the city administration will use a large portion of the remaining funding for city revenue replacement.
Will Keresztes, Chief of Administration for the Buffalo Public Schools, read a letter from the Buffalo Board of Education (BOE). The school board is asking for the city to pay the schools the interest that the schools’ earmarked money earns. Currently, the schools’ reserve balances (the money that is budgeted for the schools but has not yet been spent) earn money, and the city keeps part of that money. Commissioner Dowell pointed out that the city has paid out some of the money, but the BOE would like the remaining millions of dollars to be paid to the schools. This matter was tabled until school board representatives Cindi McEachon and Larry Scott could come speak to the council members.
Members of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (BFSA), the body that oversees the city’s finances, came to speak about their proposed “vacancy measures.” They propose that the city save money by reviewing and reducing the numbers of unfilled city jobs if they are not truly necessary. “80-90% of your budget is in people,” pointed out BFSA member Frederick Floss, and those salaries are where the city could save money. Floss also explained that the vast workplace changes brought on by COVID, including widespread remote work, may mean big changes in the city’s property tax base. CM Nowakowski encouraged the BFSA to be firm with their economic guidance, even though their recommendations may be “uncomfortable.” Various CMs agreed: with the city’s federal rescue plan funding running out this year, Buffalo will be facing a much tighter budget going forward, and will need to implement substantial savings measures.
The Committee on Legislation sent a potential ordinance governing short-term rentals (STRs) to the full council for a vote. Sponsored by CM Nowakowski and CP Scanlon, this legislation would regulate safety and neighborhood issues. STRs must now include fire detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers. Owners must also give renters emergency contact information. There will be additional reviews for local historical districts. Other CMs asked for more time so they could consider the licensing cost, which, at $1000 for non-owner occupied short-term rental owners, is quite high compared to many other city licenses.
In the Community Development Committee meeting, members opened a public hearing about a sidewalk snow removal plan, but then moved to table the discussion until a supporter could come talk about the proposal. This meeting was also short, lasting just over two and a half minutes.