Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of February 26, 2024

Date: March 1, 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 report on the Civil Service, Finance, Legislation, Community Development, Education, and Claims Committee meetings. ‘Council Member’ is abbreviated as CM; ‘Council President’ as CP; ‘President Pro Tempore’ as PT; and ‘Majority Leader’ as ML.
In the Civil Service Committee meeting, members agreed to hire workers in the fire, public works, police, and law departments, as well as in the clerk’s office. As usual, the committee moved to “receive and file” most of the appointments. In many cases, as with police hires, the Common Council does not actually have the power to decide whether someone will be hired; they are just entitled to be informed of the hire. They could discuss the hirings, but usually choose not to.
The Finance Committee spent much of their meeting discussing mortgage taxes (it wasn’t clear what these taxes are) held in the County Clerk’s office. This money is supposed to be distributed to various places, including the City of Buffalo. It appears that the city and perhaps the NFTA are owed some of this money, and council members would like to recover those funds. Committee Chair Nowakowski expressed strong dismay that the County Clerk Michael (“Mickey”) Kearns suggested that “the city wouldn’t go broke” over such a small amount. Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick addressed the Committee, and said that he felt that the Clerk’s office should have to pay for a full audit to see where the money is, and what is owed to whom.
During the Legislation Committee meeting, community members came to discuss the proliferation of both illegal and legal cannabis dispensaries. People spoke both in favor of and in opposition to a new dispensary on Elmwood Avenue near the former Children’s Hospital. Matthew Krupp, who was applying for a license, asked that the matter be tabled until there could be more conversation in the neighborhood.

CMs discussed another special use permit application for a cannabis establishment on Delaware Avenue. ML Halton-Pope asked about the level of regulation, which the applicants explained was substantial. They pointed out that legal businesses show a QR code in their window, which people can use to check if the establishment is regulated. The owners, who are already licensed by the state, said they were considering using armed security.

ML Halton-Pope said, “I will continue to advocate for the industry as a whole,” because legalization has brought relief to hundreds of thousands of people whose criminal records have been expunged.

In the Community Development Committee meeting, members started off by recommending that the city take grant money from Restore New York (a program of NYS’ economic development branch). Because the Common Council oversees Buffalo’s finances, it decides whether to accept donations, such as when a philanthropy wants to donate money for parks restoration. The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) will use this $5 million from the state—along with other funds—for the demolition, planning, and redevelopment of the Commodore Perry Homes. This project will create 405 new units of housing, 284 of which will come with vouchers so residents do not pay more that 30% of their income for rent and utilities. There will also be commercial space, playgrounds, porches, and backyards.
The Claims Committee, as it often does, conducted most of their meeting in executive session. This means that the public cannot attend. At CM Rivera’s prompting, Corporation Council Cavette Chambers explained that matters regarding ongoing lawsuits, or questions the CMs had about legal advice can be discussed in executive session. When they came back into the public meeting, they agreed with the law department’s suggestions and settled three personal injury cases, for just over $90,000 total.
Discussion in the Education Committee began with speakers who addressed various aspects of the Buffalo Public Schools’(BPS) suspensions policies. Elizabeth McPartland, President of Child and Family Services, and Rachel Green, Superintendent of the Stanley G. Falk School, spoke about that school’s very low suspension rates, despite a student body that is referred to their school because of their behavioral needs, often with emotional disabilities and mental health diagnoses. Teachers are trained in de-escalation, crisis intervention, and trauma-informed support. They have had no elementary school (kindergarten through sixth grade) suspensions in the last four years.
Michael June, an advocate for students, also spoke about suspension and why kids’ advocacy is important. Observing long-term suspension hearings, he noticed that few students were supported by anyone other than a parent, and none received their due process notice in advance. As a result, students don’t really know what they’re in for, or what their rights are. The hearings are one-sided, June noted. “The focus is mainly on what the student did wrong, creating the proverbial back-against-the-ropes feeling.” Students do not have the right to what lawyers call “discovery”—they cannot, for example, obtain any video. Nor are they made aware that there is a hotline they can call to get representation. This hotline is 1-716-220-7081.
CM Wyatt worried that this is where children “fall through the cracks.” He spoke of one student he knows who’s been out of school for over 4 months.
Community advocate Sam Radford also spoke about the importance of the Buffalo Suspension Hotline. Many of the folks behind that hotline are lawyers, he explained, because students’ underrepresentation at hearings must be addressed.
The common council doesn’t have decision-making power, “but you are part of it,” Radford said, “as we all are.” Everyone has limited resources, he explained, so we should pool them to do better by Buffalo’s youth. Radford reflected on CM Everhart’s idea about “building a table” around which we can talk about youth and suspension. “You have to have a really big table to get to the bottom of the suspension process,” he reminded listeners.
Jimmy Barnes spoke about Sensory Backpacks, which are being supplied to students and adults through the Saturday Academies. These backpacks are meant to make those events less overwhelming for students who need things like fidget toys and non-verbal cue cards to better navigate stressful events.
Jim Barnes, Chief Financial Officer of BPS, and Board of Education member Cindi McEachon spoke about the upcoming $90 million reduction in funding, as federal COVID payments (known as ARPA-ESSER funds) expire. Though schools (public, charter, and private, throughout the region) have seen a decrease in student numbers (3,400 children over 5 years), there are 350 new staff. Therefore, BPS is cutting vacancies and has put in place a hiring freeze. Classroom consolidations, the result of lower enrollment, will leave BPS with an average class size of 21.