Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of May 1, 2023

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of May 1, 2023

Date: May 5, 2023

By Sarah Wooton 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 the Regular Meeting, where the council makes official decisions on issues. It also includes takeaways from the city's budget hearings.

In this summary, we abbreviate “Council Member” as CM, "Council President" as CP, and "Majority Leader" as ML.

In the Regular Meeting, we learned that CM Wingo will be starting his new position with the Community Action Organization next week. However, he will finish his full term with the council through December 31 of this year.

The council approved an ordinance amendment to prohibit the sales of weapons in food shops. The proposed amendment will now go to the mayor for his signature. They also approved amendments that create a licensing process for smoke shops and cannabis shops. The mayor had already signed these amendments, so they will be enacted soon.

CM Scanlon proposed creating a full-time peer mental health position in the Buffalo Police Department. He explained that in the last two years, five people in the department have died due to mental health related issues. This new employee would not be a mental health professional themselves, but they would help BPD employees connect with those professionals. Further, he proposed that officers who voluntarily see a mental health professional receive two to three paid mental health days to attend those appointments. The council adopted this resolution, but the mayor is the ultimate decision maker on this because it is a departmental proposal.

In the Budget Hearings, we heard from each city department about its proposed budget for the coming year. In the police department’s hearing, CM Wyatt pushed the BPD commissioner on the department’s overtime costs. The department has spent $10.2 million so far in overtime this year. Since the city will be raising taxes on residents, CM Wyatt wants to keep the budget as lean as possible. The commissioner said that he needs to keep officers visible in high-crime areas to try to reduce crime. This can result in overtime costs. We also learned that part of this overtime is spent staffing Key Bank arena for big sports events. The hosts of these events profit off attendees, but the hosts do not pay the city for those policing services. CP Pridgen asked council staff to look into whether other municipalities charge for these services and whether it would require a charter revision to do so.

The CMs also asked the Fire Department Commissioner about overtime costs. The commissioner explained that there were unexpected increases in overtime due to the November storm, the December storm, administrative leave due to COVID, and the fireperson's death at 745 Main Street. Trainings and special events resulted in additional overtime costs.

In the Department of Public Works (DPW) hearing, we learned that the dept is increasing its budget for street striping. CM Pridgen asked about the potential for electric vehicle conversion. A DPW employee explained that electric plows are not available yet, but we could consider electric conversion for personnel vehicles in the future.

The DPW commissioner also talked about sidewalk snow removal. He said the city had had a sidewalk snow removal pilot program from 2015-2019. He explained that the difficulty in transitioning the pilot to a full program is the cost to residents. CM Wyatt said the council has heard loud and clear from city residents that sidewalk snow removal is a huge priority. CM Wyatt would like to revisit the conversation to see what can be done.

CM Nowakowski requested that DPW cut the grass on city-owned vacant lots early in the season to avoid complaints from surrounding neighbors. A DPW representative mentioned that the city would be pursuing an urban forestry grant from the federal government. This grant money would be used to plant new trees in the city and to maintain old ones.

CM Golombek mentioned his concerns that the water authority is unresponsive to his residents. Residents in his district are continuously getting estimated water bills. CM Golombek believes this is because the authority is understaffed; it’s supposed to have 126 employees, but there are currently around 40 openings.

In the Law Department hearing, the councilmember emphasized that they’d like to have an attorney designated to only council matters. Right now, the attorney who works on council matters also has several other responsibilities. The head of the law dept said that the dept had assigned a second attorney to the council. CP Pridgen requested the list of responsibilities of both of those attorneys.

In the Office of Strategic Planning (OSP) hearing, Executive Director Brendan Mehaffy said OSP would like to meet with each council member to discuss how city-owned land should be used. CM Wyatt expressed frustration that the OSP has talked about coming up with a plan for the vacant land for years but hasn’t yet introduced one yet.

CM Wyatt noted that traffic violations revenue in this year’s budget was increased from $2 million to $4.2 million. Delano Dowell, Commissioner of Administration and Finance, explained that this change was made because the city plans to implement a school bus arm camera program. These cameras would record the license plates of cars that speed by stopped school buses. However, this program has not been approved yet. CM Wyatt was frustrated that the proposed school bus arm cameras had not been discussed with the council or the public, yet the anticipated revenue from the program is already in the budget. ML Rivera added his support for school bus arm cameras, and CM Wingo expressed frustration around the city taking down school zone speeding cameras after public backlash.

Division of Citizens Services Director (CDS) Oswaldo Mestre and 311 Manager Robert Kreutinger discussed moving to a new 311 software and extending call center hours to be more responsive to resident concerns. Dir. Mestre mentioned the new 311 software would allow for more flexibility and scale.

CM Wyatt promoted Clean Sweeps and suggested the CDS could leverage the Mayor's Impact Team to increase the number of Clean Sweeps. 

During the Permit and Inspection Services hearing, CM Golombek requested increased tickets and fines for illegal dumping and snow removal. However, he doesn't want to ticket certain populations like the elderly or to ticket during extreme weather situations. He stated he’s been part of a demonstration project involving ticketing for un-shoveled sidewalks along bus routes - which he estimated is 372 miles - versus the total 2,000 miles within City limits. Commissioner Cathy Amdur stated inspectors are averaging 11,000 tickets a week for things like debris, illegal dumping, uncut grass, unlicensed vehicles on lawns, and more.

At the Mayor's request, Deputy Commissioner Kevin Gould has compiled a list of offenses that contribute to blight and cause damage to neighboring properties. The purpose of this is to explore ticketing options that can specifically target properties responsible for quality-of-life issues without harming residents. Comm. Amdur suggested working with the Attorney General's Office to prosecute bad actors on a larger scale, as the department can only target properties and not owners.

Raymond Wagner, Commissioner of Parking presented software changes to make paying tickets and appeals online more accessible and faster. He also requested money for rook forklifts so vehicles can be towed away more quickly during snow events.

The Management Information Systems department budget reflects the City's technology strategy, including moving critical infrastructure to the cloud, keeping hardware and software up to date, and improving the City's overall cybersecurity posture.

Commissioner Jason Shell stated the Assessment and Taxation Department is working on a website with information for residents about property taxes and how to file a grievance if owners believe their property was improperly assessed. 

City Clerk Tiana Marks explained her office had seen increased traffic due to the need for vital records, and she was looking for ways to allow people to purchase vital records online directly from the city. The City Clerk's office is looking into taking advantage of local permits like chicken licenses to increase revenues.