|Date:||May 3, 2023|
By Rose Thomas, Regine Ndanga, and Anna Blatto
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.
This week's summary focuses on five meetings: the Community Development Committee, the Civil Service Committee, the Legislation Committee, the Finance Committee, and a Special Meeting as a follow-up from the Council's Regular Meeting on 4/18/23.
Community Development Committee Meeting
During the Community Development meeting, the Allen Street Capital Improvement Project and Buffalo Arts Commission Art Installation item was received and filed.
Chloe Hilson, a law student at Columbia University, joined the Council in discussing the “Rate your Ride” Public Transit Survey. This is a collaborative effort between Western New York Law Center, Erie County Clerk's Office, and Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic. The focus is on riders’ experiences with NFTA transit and bringing these narratives to NFTA to make changes. The researchers hoped that by bringing this to the Council meeting that they could have more active participants. Some narratives they shared with the Council included snow-covered bus stops that impacted students and the elderly and early bus schedules. Other members of the community came to speak about the NFTA posing a barrier for senior citizens and people who are disabled. Denise Barr spoke to the survey as a transit rider, saying that there are problems with accountability and the community hasn’t seen any listings regarding incentives for taking the survey. A suggestion given by Barr was to put these surveys at the NFTA stations.
Later in the Community Development meeting, the Council discussed identifying a location for the new Department of Public Works facility that will house equipment storage, maintenance, and administrative offices. Some concerns the Council Members have are whether the Department of Public Works would ensure that this facility would be in an easily accessible location and that they will review the $10 million and how it will be allocated to the facilities and construction.
Legislation Committee Meeting
In the Legislation Committee Meeting, CM Wyatt proposed a change in ordinance amendment related to tobacco, hookah, and vape products, requiring stores to obtain a license before opening a vape store. Several council members, including CMs Bollman, Scanlon, Golomber, and Council President Pridgen, shared their reasons for supporting the proposal. Assistant Corporation Counsel Karen Gordon added that the Department of Permit & Inspection Services would include additional conditions. Then it will need to provide them to the Council and the public. Larry, a citizen who spoke at the meeting, expressed concern about the targeting of minority communities by vaping stores and the increasing use of tobacco among youth. Larry also suggested using existing model laws from other cities to help prevent the epidemic of tobacco use among youth. CMs Scanlon and Wyatt recommended approving the proposal without additional changes to expedite the law-passing process. The Council decided to send the proposal without a recommendation and further discuss how to add the suggested changes.
CP Pridgen proposed an amendment to Chapter 194 of the Food Stores Ordinance, which would prohibit deli stores from selling any items that could be used to injure someone, including weapons. The proposed law would specify what items stores can sell and what is prohibited. Several Council Members, including Bollman, Nowakowski, Wyatt, Rivera, and Golombek, have supported the amendment and are seeking to co-sponsor it. The motion is now up for approval.
Attorney Chanel McCarthy represented Mac and Emmett from Jack Rabbit, who requested two special permits to host outdoor concerts in May and August next year. Chanel submitted support letters from neighborhood residents and other businesses. However, residents raised concerns about the noise, traffic, and health impacts of these events. Linda raised concerns about the ongoing investigation of Jack Rabbit by the New York State Liquor Authority. Other residents stated Jack Rabbit could host indoor events and does not need to include the entire neighborhood. Supporters of the proposal who don't reside in the immediate neighborhood raised concern among the residents. McCarthy argued that the space could hold 2,000 people, but her clients would provide tickets for only 1,400 people. CM Fereloto emphasized the Council would not finalize its decision during the hearing due to insufficient information available to the Council and the public.
The representatives from Rupp Pfalzgraf LLC, the Hispanic Heritage Council of WNY, and LaBella Associates presented a request for special permits and zoning. Mark Romanowski from Rupp Pfalzgraf highlighted that their proposed facility would offer unique programs currently unavailable in the community and benefit not only the Hispanic community but all communities. Majority Leader Rivera and CM Feroleto also mentioned that Casimiro Rodriguez approached them with the proposal without funding. Still, he persevered and raised $10 million. Ultimately, there was a motion to approve the request.
Derek Turner requested permits to open a tavern at 930 Walden Ave. Residents expressed their concerns regarding traffic, lack of parking, violence, and safety. Rita, one of the residents, emphasized their desire for a peaceful and safe neighborhood. The majority of the residents that spoke requested that the Council reject the permit. They also suggested that the community needs something to empower and inspire youth. CM Bollman raised the issue of unlicensed operation, parking problems, and homicide when the previous owner was operating. Derek advocated for his business; he stated that he had attempted to meet with community members to solve the parking issues. After considering the opinions of both the applicant and the residents, CM Bollman sent the item without recommendation with inclination for denial.
Finance Committee Meeting
This week’s Finance Meeting lasted nearly 2 hours as many community members attended to speak on items. This summary focuses on:
City of Buffalo Credit Rating
Gregg Syzmanski, representing the City of Buffalo Comptroller's Office, reviewed the recent credit rating reports from Moodey's and S&P. The City of Buffalo received upper-medium grades from both rating agencies; Syzmanski believes this is the highest the City has recently been. CM Wyatt wondered where the ratings would stand if it weren't for the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. Syzmanski noted one of the raters, S&P, cites this in their review. He goes on to say if the City comes out of spending this money in a stable financial situation, there may even be an upgrade for the credit rating, but that S&P is also concerned about this. Wyatt brought up the cash reserve fund the City fought hard for as good news.
Kate Lockhart, Director of the Vacant and Abandoned Properties Program, spoke on behalf of a letter sent to the Common Council. The letter "Support NYS Surplus Fund Requirement, Codify Buffalo's Return Process, and Pause" urged the Common Council to take action on surplus funds from foreclosures. The City of Buffalo sells properties it foreclosed on at City's InRem auction. In the past, the City has returned any money earned beyond the debt, interest, and penalties - surplus funds - to the property's prior owner. In 2019, the last InRem auction before COVID-19 paused the foreclosure process, the City changed its policy suddenly to retain the surplus funds.
Lockhart requested three actions from the Council:
CM Wyatt shared that the Common Council has made a public stance they want funds to be made available to families.
Council President (CP) Pridgen agreed, having gone on the record saying there should be no InRem auction until this is resolved, and said there is no need to have an auction right now. He stated houses are the most significant investments people make in their lives, and families should have their money back. He supports statewide legislation, does not believe government budgets should depend on this money, and wants to join on a resolution. CM Wyatt directed staff to work on one.
Majority Leader (ML) Rivera revealed Corporation Council at the time, Tim Ball, led the Common Council on numerous occasions to believe the City intended to return surplus funds. Rivera called this a bait and switch, saying it is unconscionable that one of the poorest cities in the country even considered taking surplus funds when people are already struggling. ML Rivera said he would sign onto a resolution and would even co-sponsor one. ML Rivera needed clarification about ongoing statewide efforts.
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Executive Director at Partnership for the Public Good, shared Governor Hochul's draft budget includes a requirement for the return of surplus funds and that the Common Council's support still matters as the budget is still being negotiated. She continued to say if it doesn't make it into the state budget this year, the Common Council should take the more protracted process of codifying it into City law.
While CM Wyatt reiterated that staff would begin to draft a resolution and forward it to the state, CP Pridgen suggested staff draft a letter that Council Members can sign onto to send to the state more quickly than it would take to prepare and adopt a resolution. CM Wyatt agreed. CM Bollman wants his name on the letter and a resolution. He supports the return of surplus funds and intends to advocate the state and not move forward with a new auction.
Ó Súilleabháin stated 104 property owners lost surplus funds in 2019, affecting residents of every Council District. She shared statistics: 63% of these properties are exclusively East Side zip codes, and 15/17 of Buffalo's zip codes have an impacted property owner. She acknowledged the City's quick stripping of the program without notice and its impact on families - the loss of generational wealth and another policy decision reinforcing the disparities and practices prevalent throughout Buffalo's history.
Dr. Henry Louis Taylor, Director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, spoke in support of returning surplus funds via Zoom. He stated predatory activities are more harmful to Buffalo's East Side than various forms of disinvestment and that taking wealth from the community is placing considerable obstacles in their development path. He urged the Common Council to pass the resolution and clarify the process of returning surplus funds.
Daniel Corbitt, Associate Director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), also joined via ZOOM to explain HOME's experience working with individuals who have lost their homes through eviction or foreclosure. He stated this issue is exacerbating the housing instability in the Buffalo Niagara region by preventing access to financial equity and destabilizing neighborhoods, especially when it's increasingly difficult to find safe, affordable, quality housing.
Darwin Rosales, Housing Director at Harvest House with a background in social work, spoke about the increasing homeless population as there are not enough affordable properties for rent or sale. Rosales shared that the issue is worsening for older people on fixed incomes. He mentioned landlords with 1-2 properties who provide housing to the community are also impacted and that the return of funds may offer more housing opportunities.
CM Wyatt concluded by thanking agencies that do this work and expressed his desire to take action.
Office of Strategic Planning Proposals
Finally, the City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning (OSP) representatives presented Annual Action Plan amendments to reallocate money to more immediate needs. Maria Chutty, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Program Manager, reiterated five individual items presented at a public hearing on March 16, 2023, and underwent a 30-day comment period following. Chutty stated the first three items are housing-related, and OSP is asking the Council to consider them independently of the Economic Development items.
The first request is to reallocate Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) COVID (CV) funds for rental assistance and eviction prevention. The CARES Act initially allocated these funds, and just over $70,000 remaining from prior years' activities that came under budget or expired programs. CM Wyatt wondered whether OSP would prioritize residents already on the waiting list before Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds from the state ran out. Chutty confirmed the money would go toward individuals on a waiting list, but the funding would only put a small dent in what is needed. Chutty claimed a few million dollars would be necessary to meet all the needs in this area currently, but that funds are yet to be available.
The second item is the reallocation of $475,000 of home investment partnership funds from existing rental and owner-rehab programs to a more substantial rehab-owner line. Chutty stated the renter rehab line still has funding, but the owner-rehab lines need additional funding.
The third item is the reallocation of $55,000 of CDBG funds from the emergency rehab loan program to assist with downpayment and closing cost assistance programs. Chutty asserted this is based on community needs.
CM Scanlon, ML Rivera, CP Pridgen, and Corporation Council Gordon discussed how to move forward with separating the first three housing-related items from the last two economic development-related items. They concluded the Council could approve the amended applications and that OSP must submit the economic development items separately for approval.
Lisa Hicks, Director of Development in the Office of Strategic Planning, presented the economic development items. The Common Council already requested additional information from OSP to address their concerns. Hicks brought a handout with additional information. OSP is asking to provide $500,000 to Braymiller Market at 225 Ellicott Street. This money would come from reallocating CDBG CV funding to support special economic development activity.
She shared the following background:
Stuart Green, the owner of Braymiller Market, attended the meeting to speak on his behalf. He shared he works closely with Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) and wants to develop a marketing plan to identify what changes Braymiller needs to make to meet community needs.
CM Wyatt asked whether Green has a different business model for Buffalo and Hamburg locations. Green replied that the Buffalo location is a work in progress and that Braymiller is working on modifying its Buffalo location to meet the community's needs. CM Wyatt noted that the City's model should differ from the suburban Hamburg model and asked Green if he thought using the same model in its Buffalo location would be easy. Green responded that Braymiller, as a business, has three components - wholesale to the food service industry, retail food sales, and prepared foods. He stated he is making adjustments every day to the business.
CM Wyatt reflected on OSP's request and that giving $500,000 to one grocery store is difficult, especially when other grocery stores are not asking for assistance. He brought up the 102 businesses which received $1.2 million collectively and whether it is equitable for one store to receive $500,000. Hicks explained that Braymiller's downtown location was not open during the pandemic, while other grocery stores were raking in excessive profit as essential businesses throughout the pandemic. Hicks reiterated downtown's situation, with hybrid work and less foot traffic. She stated that many people are still suffering and many small businesses cannot access assistance and that while $1.2 million was significant, it was not enough. She stated more money would be available for small businesses once the City makes available American Rescue Plan transformation funds. Hicks reminded the Council that keeping the grocery store downtown is a priority as it provides an amenity to people who live there and an essential amenity to attract other businesses and residents to locate downtown.
CM Wingo commented his residents recently expressed their desire to see this kind of investment in the Masten District. CP Pridgen thanked Green for stepping in when other businesses wouldn't but would only consider providing money to Braymiller once more details are fleshed out. He stated no financial institution would lend a company half a million without thorough vetting and that the proposal is not ready. CM Wyatt echoed CP Pridgen's concerns and shared that with his banking and credit risk management background, businesses need to be tweaking their business plans quarterly when they don't see results.
Nearly a dozen community speakers attended the meeting in support of and against providing funding to Braymiller.
Murray Hollman has been working with Green since Braymiller opened. He and Green collaborated to employ ten young men with prior gun-related charges, which Hollman said has been very successful thus far. He supports giving Braymiller money due to their employment of potentially at-risk use and Braymiller's commitment to providing fresh food. Hollman stated CP Pridgen shared that more money will be available soon, but concrete details still need to be provided. He claimed companies like Family Dollar, Rite Aid, and Dollar General were given money after the recent storm. CP Pridgen interjected, saying the Common Council has not given any money to these organizations; Hollman explained community members are saying this, not the Common Council. CP Pridgen acknowledged no price can be put on the success of young people and keeping them off the streets, but if the business isn't sustainable, it won't matter. Hollman believes the business is sustainable.
Nina Ferguson, Director of the Buffalo Food Equity Network, opposed the request and shared that most in the network also oppose it. She criticized the City for what she considers a bailout for a company that opened without thinking about the needs of the area it would be servicing. She also criticized Braymiller for not altering its projections after the pandemic began in March 2020. She suggested the Common Council should consider innovative and equitable strategies with leftover funds, such as a pathway to short-term assistance to address COVID impacts on the entire East Side rather than just one downtown business. Ferguson stated if the Common Council is still considering some funding, the Buffalo Food Equity Network strongly demands accountability and wants to ensure Braymiller is following the requirements put in place.
Lakisha Johnson from the Queen City Workers expressed concern about grocery store access to people who are homeless living across the street from Braymiller and recommended the City consider a voucher program so nearby people who are homeless can get a fresh meal.
Archie Brooks, founder of the 201 Ellicott Tenant Association, does not support Braymiller receiving funding. He claimed Green has not been a good neighbor, and many tenants complain about Braymiller. Specifically, he stated this is "not a Go Fund Me" and that prices at the store are too expensive for residents living nearby, specifically in 201 Ellicott, an affordable apartment complex. He claimed Green brought inflated suburban prices to its Buffalo location. Because of that, Braymiller can't capitalize on the people living next door because it is simply unaffordable.
Michelle Roberson, mother and community member, wants the Common Council to consider what Braymiller can do for the community if it is appropriately advertised. She shops at Braymiller for her seven children. She points out unique assets Braymiller provides, such as fresh produce, employing young men who have been to prison, and trying to bring something that was once only available in the suburbs to the City. Roberson shared that half a million dollars might be too much for one business. Still, she recognized the uniqueness of Braymiller and that its local competition - often cornerstones - also has high prices and lower-qualify offerings.
Delmar Speed, a resident at 201 Ellicott, shared the staff is nice and friendly, but he is against funding because the store needs to do more to cater to the building next door. He stated the facility is nice, clean, and has friendly workers, but the marketing strategy is not for low-income housing.
Tashe Timmons, an employee at Braymiller's downtown location, would like to see the company grow and stay in its current location. She shared that her employment at Braymiller provides a stable home for her and her son and that, as part of her job, she listens to customer concerns and tries to make recommendations to improve the store.
Denise Juron-Borges, Vice President of Development & Planning at Ciminelli Real Estate, offered strong support on behalf of the company. Ciminelli is the developer of 201 Ellicott and Braymiller Market. She shared that the City of Buffalo's original RFQ required the inclusion of a grocery store, given that 6/7 census tracts surrounding 201 Ellicott were food deserts. She reiterated Green's willingness to step in and offer to locate downtown when no other grocer contacted would. She stated that since opening, Braymiller has delivered on its promise to provide food security, hire diverse workers, and provide jobs. She also mentioned a "notable number" of EBT transactions as a daily percentage of Braymiller's business. She also brought up Braymiller's collaboration with Buffalo Public Schools, providing free meal kits and instructions on how to make healthy meals. She stated Braymiller was planning to bring this program to local elderly residents. Juron-Borges reiterated the importance of building a vibrant downtown where residents can work, live, and play. She stated financial support is critical to sustaining the business as it modifies, grows, and forges a path to long-term sustainability.
Sydney Brown, a concerned resident who works with nonprofits such as Citizen Alliance, has seen first-hand the devastation of 50 years of disinvestment along Jefferson Ave. Brown shared that many businesses along Jefferson, Bailey, and other East Side business districts have been unable to sustain themselves because they can't get help. She claimed even the Erie County Storefront Revitalization Program lost its tenants and needed help to apply for additional funding to make their properties habitable. She wants the Common Council to take the same amount of time that OSP spent trying to maintain Braymiller to help more people and that the Braymiller business model needs to be revised for the residents it is trying to serve.
Denise Barr, resident and advocate, is against funding Braymiller. Barr travels through the area often and, before Braymiller opened, had concerns about the store's location across the street from a significant homeless population. She argued that Braymiller did not fulfill promises around unsold products. She also criticized Braymiller for not stepping up in the aftermath of the Tops Massacre. Barr stated the East Side communities continue to be overlooked in favor of models from other areas where money isn't a concern. She noted the food is excellent but unaffordable for low-income residents. She wants her community to be able to take advantage of this money rather than a store she believes failed to account for the community it would be serving.
Ms. Della Miller, a food equity community advocate with the Buffalo Food Equity Network and Good Food Purchasing Program, does not consider Braymiller a grocery store. She stated a grocery store has 95% of food shopping needs, including a pharmacy, and that Braymiller is more of a deli. Ms. Della shared that she met with Green at the MAP Center and felt the same attitude that Braymiller wants to take from the community but not give back. Ms. Della wants the Council to reconsider how the money can go to better use, perhaps to individuals and organizations doing food equity work.
CM Wyatt shared that the Council will consider all comments before they meet again on this issue. ML Rivera stated he listened to everyone with an open mind and thanked Green for coming to downtown Buffalo when there were many challenges. However, he reflected on the needs of other business districts in the City and that each district has its own "Braymiller," a small, individually-owned fresh food market, with his district's being Guercio's. He does not want business-related investments to be either downtown or neighborhoods - he wants it to be both. He stated he is open to dialogue moving forward, reading the amount of money, conditions, safeguards, and projections. He said he is not critical of Green for moving from Hamburg to Buffalo and that many businesses are forced to adapt and hopes they'll be able to bring affordable groceries to downtown Buffalo.
In this Special Meeting, Council Members discussed a contentious item from the Regular Meeting from the prior week. CP Pridgen and the Law Department concluded since the late file item regarding the appointment of members to the Buffalo Citizens Salary Review Commission was not objected to at the beginning of the meeting, the Council was able to vote on it as part of the meeting agenda. CM Golombek continues to disagree with this ruling and will be taking this up with Corporation Counsel. He opted to continue to vote in the negative. CM Wingo abstained from voting as he was not present at the prior meeting and claimed he was not given enough information. CP Pridgen retorted that CM Wingo was sent the same information as the rest of the Council.