Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of May 15, 2023

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of May 15, 2023

Date: May 19, 2023

By Megan Battista, 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 includes the regular meeting, where the council makes official decisions on issues, the council's 2023 - 2024 budget workshops, and the Public Hearing. In this summary, we abbreviate “Council Member” as CM, "Council President" as CP, and "Majority Leader" as ML.

In the regular meeting, the council approved a payment instead of taxes (PILOT) agreement for an affordable housing development at Mt. Olive Senior Manor on East Delavan Ave. In a PILOT, the city lets the developer pay only a portion of the taxes on a development for a set number of years. This development will have 65 units and will serve low-income seniors.

The council also approved a designated developer agreement with the Thankful Community Development Corp (TCDC) to build 30 housing units on five publicly-owned lots at Brinkman Ave and Sumner Place. The units will be for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness and people who are recovering from substance abuse disorders.

The council also approved the creation of new fines for vaping, tobacco, and cannabis shops that don’t follow city regulations. For example, if a shop is selling cannabis without displaying its NYS license to sell it, the owner will be fined $1,500.

In the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) budget workshop, we learned that the district has a $37.7 million deficit. However, the district can easily cover it because it has a reserve fund of $310 million. District representatives say the reserve will also cover the deficits they expect in coming years. These deficits are driven by the newly-adopted teacher contract, which increases teacher salaries by 21% over the next three and half years.

We saw budget increases in the following areas: security, athletics, family and community engagement, and culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives. BPS expects an increase of more than 700 charter school seats in the upcoming school year.

Superintendent Tonja Williams also requested a salary increase for Board of Education (BoE) members. Superintendent Williams outlined the demanding roles that the board members play, and she said that their current salary of approximately $15,000 a year is not fair for that work. She also mentioned that market increases are not reflected in this salary. Superintendent Williams requested salaries of $28,000 per year, representing increased spending of $117,000 (a 0.01% increase in the BPS budget.) CP Pridgen said he favored the proposal to increase the Board of Education’s salary due to the importance of the BoE. Later in the meeting, ML Rivera and CM Wyatt supported the BoE pay raise.

A BPS rep explained that BPS would continue to be able to meet student needs with the budget as long as enrollment maintains or increases. Superintendent Williams said that the increased state aid to BPS will result in more mental health support, more school security (especially for elementary schools), more programming for three-year-olds, and investment in research-based reading programs.

CM Bollman asked what the extra security money would be spent on. Superintendent Williams said they are recruiting more security staff, and they’ve already hired 30 new staff. The district will also put bus aids on all buses and outfit security guards with scanners and security wands.

In closing remarks, Superintendent Williams shared that all non-community schools will receive additional funding for community programming next year for the 2023-2024 school year.

We learned in the Buffalo Fire Department (BFD) budget workshop that there are no plans for cuts for the BFD budget, despite a directive from the mayor to all departments to cut their budget by 10%. Fire Commissioner William Renaldo said that level of cut would not be feasible for the department. CM Wyatt communicated that the overtime budget was inflated due to major emergencies in 2022-2023 and can be cut. The Commissioner disagreed, stating that understaffing, special events, certifications and training, and major events (such as last year’s blizzards) make that overtime budget needed.
The commissioner reported that 50 firefighters are starting in September, which will make the department close to fully staffed. The BFD is purchasing additional vehicles for major snow events.
A BPD union rep also spoke at the hearing. The union feels more funds should go toward repairing firehouses and fixing the vehicles in the fleet rather than adding vehicles that firefighters are not trained on. Additionally, the union feels the deputy commissioner roles are not necessary or are being underutilized and that promotions are not occurring at the rate they should.
Public Works, Parks, and Streets (DPW) reported that it plans to increase revenue by raising shelter fees for non-residents. The current event fee for the use of Buffalo spaces is a flat rate, but the DPW is also creating a varied fee plan that depends on the size of the park or the size of the event.
DPW proposed it could save costs by switching from weekly recycling pick up to bi-weekly recycling pick up. CM Wyatt expressed concern that the transition to bi-weekly recycling would lead to residents recycling less. The commissioner explained that a lack of industry return on recycling makes biweekly pickup more feasible. A DPW rep mentioned that Buffalo residents can exchange the smaller recycling tote for a larger one or multiple smaller ones without additional cost to the resident or city. CM Nowakowski mentioned that sanitation salaries seemed low for their work, and he recommended a pay increase. DPW is applying for $50 million in federal funds for tree planting. 
The DPW commissioner explained that the city’s shortage of snow removal equipment leads to higher overtime costs. The existing snow equipment is also aging and requires maintenance. Some new equipment is coming, but not until next March. A DPW rep explained that the streets should be free of cars so that DPW can plow the streets more easily. The rep explained that updated signs or additional signs may be needed to inform residents that parking is restricted between 1:30 and 7:00 AM.
Currently, there are 77 vacancies in DPW. Water has 42 vacancies, so the office uses outside contractors to complete the work. The department is considering waiving the certifications needed for some of those roles for the first six months to increase recruitment.
DPW will finish striping school zones at the end of the summer. One-third of main streets and secondary streets will be finished next year. 
CP expressed that the pothole budget is not high enough and that the plan for main corridors benefits visitors more than taxpayers. CP inquired about infrastructure funds being used for cracks in the roads. A DPW rep stated that infrastructure money cannot be used for maintenance.
The city is trying to curb illegal dumping in vacant lots. The BPD writes tickets for $1,500 when the dumper’s address can be traced (via mail or other paperwork) in the garbage being dumped.
CM Wyatt asked where the department was making the cuts that the mayor directed them to make. The DPW rep explained that the dept only made minimal cuts. They’re trying to reduce vacancies and overtime, but most of the budget is necessary to provide necessary services for residents.
In the Human Resources (HR) budget workshop, we learned that there are 2,751 budgeted positions in the City of Buffalo. The department is currently budgeting $60,000 for leadership supervisory training, customer service, conflict resolution training, and mandatory training related to sexual harassment and workplace violence. City residents get preference for positions that are posted.
CP Pridgen asked about policies related to cannabis for hiring and retaining police officers. HR explained that cannabis is legal in New York State, but if someone tests positive for cannabis in the initial drug test given by the BPD, they aren’t hired. CP Pridgen pointed out a discrepancy between this policy and the policy as explained by the BPD commissioner. According to CP Pridgen, the commissioner explained that— unless a person acted under the influence—knowledge of them using cannabis would not cause any disciplinary action. This is similar to alcohol policies. The HR representative said it was different when it came to hiring. CP Pridgen said they needed additional clarification from the police commissioner.

In the Law Department workshop, we heard that attorneys' salaries in the law department are currently in line with other cities and counties. However, there are nine open positions in the department.

CM Wyatt asked about the Assistant Corporation Counsel and how her time was being split between the common council and the other work she does for the law department. The Corporation Counsel rep said the council hired a second attorney to support the Assistant Corporation Counsel.

In the Community Services and Recreational Programming budget workshop, Commissioner Barker reported that there is currently $62.5K in the budget for senior services. There are no planned workforce cuts in the department. Pay for the Mayor’s Summer Youth work program comes from the city budget and will provide jobs for 1,800 young people.

CM Wyatt asked about extending the summer youth program all year round. Commissioner Barker reported that the dept held two 8-week winter programs, and this year the dept will provide job readiness training in addition to that program.

In the Office of Strategic Planning (OSP) budget workshop, a representative said that the Land Bank is investigating whether it can purchase the tax liens on foreclosed homes to access those properties.

OSP sold 120 vacant lots this year, about the annual average. The department wants a more robust infill process (building lots in more developed areas). An infill process is underway on Adams St and in Hamlin Park. Most infill projects on the East Side are affordable, while developers build market-rate housing in other parts of the city. CM Wyatt said they have been hearing about infill for a long and have not seen a robust infill process.

OSP Director Mehaffy reported that the dept expects to make $3.8 Million from real estate sales this year. CM Wyatt asked about a vacant house or vacant land program to speed up land sales. The Real Estate rep reported that there are currently 6,900 city-owned vacant lots in Buffalo. Before 2004, the City of Buffalo removed abandoned houses by collapsing them into their basements and simply leaving them in the ground. This makes developing vacant land more challenging now.

CP Pridgen said he does not want rapid sales of vacant lots in the Ellicott District because he doesn’t want prospectors and bad landlords purchasing the land. Both CP Pridgen and ML Rivera agree they want families next door to the lots to be allowed to purchase that land first.

In the Citizen Services Division budget workshop, Director Mestre reports that they plan to extend the hours of the 311 line by two hours; the line will operate until 6:30 pm in the new budget year. Director Mestre reported that the city completed 33 clean sweeps last year.

CP Pridgen asked if the division could host call centers for residents during disasters such as blizzards. Director Mestre explained that this is possible with the new call systems they are implementing.

In the Mayor’s Executive Office budget workshop, a rep from the mayor’s office reported that the office has a $5.9 million grant budget, and each department keeps an itemized list explaining how it’s using its grant funds. This year, the office will implement a system to monitor and track the receipt of grant funds.

The mayor’s office also plans to implement school bus arm cameras. These will create revenue by ticketing cars that pass school buses illegally.

In the Dept of Permits and Inspections workshop, Commissioner Amdur said that the current fines for illegal dumping and snow removal are appropriate, despite the council members inquiring about raising them. The city addresses blight by writing tickets. Usually, the dept writes $11,000 in tickets per week. This week it was $17,000. The dept proposes increasing revenue by increasing the number of ticket-able offenses (gutters, property maintenance).

CM Wyatt said that he will sponsor legislation related to minor property offenses. CM Bollman says he would support that legislation.
Commissioner Amdur explained that they did a detailed analysis of revenue from permit fees and compared it to nearby municipalities. They will be raised because the department's fees were lower than nearby municipalities’. For example, building permit fees for commercial properties will all increase by 25-32%.

The Administration and Finance Dept estimates the city will receive $8 Million in cannabis revenue in the upcoming fiscal year. This money will come from the 4% cannabis tax. This tax revenue will be split between the county (25%) and the city (75%).

Several CMs expressed that they thought this projection was too high. According to CM Feroleto, there are currently zero dispensaries in the City of Buffalo.

The ML reported that the comptroller says that the revenue sources for the budget were based on unreliable revenue. ML thinks more cuts need to be made, and revenues need to be increased. He recognizes that the cuts will mean fewer services and jobs.

The representative for Finance stated that overall city revenue has been stagnant while the cost of living and expenditures have increased. The City of Buffalo's revenue is low compared to other similar cities.

CM Wyatt advocated for the city to slow down hires, increase jobs in revenue-producing departments, and downsize non-revenue-producing departments. CM Wyatt also noted that none of the departments had made the 10% budget cut requested by the mayor.

The representative from finance explained that some departments can only make single-digit cuts. In the police and fire departments, for example, there are minimum staffing requirements, which makes budget cuts difficult.  

In the Department of Parking budget workshop, we learned that the dept will be using new software and updating to a real-time portal. Residents can view and pay for tickets online, and those tickets will be available to pay immediately.

CM Wyatt asked if the dept was making cuts. Commissioner Wagner reported that they were so low-staffed already that they had to add staff. However, most positions in the department are income-generating.

In the Assessment and Taxation Dept budget workshop, Commissioner Shell explained that the office advocates for an income eligibility increase to the enhanced STAR property tax break. That way, more seniors will benefit from the tax break. The exemption takes off up to 50% of a household’s property taxes and 40% off a household’s water bill.

CM Nakowski asked if code violations can be tagged onto tax bills to go after bad landlords. Commissioner Shell explained that they did that in 2019, but this requires court involvement, and the dept hasn’t done it since.

In the City Clerk’s workshop, City Clerk Marks explained that the has several initiatives for income generation. These include adding a one-day marriage officiant license and increasing the cost to obtain records (excluding vital records), such as special use permits and zoning map amendments. Clerk Marks explained that vital records are now required for employment, so raising vital record fees may harm Buffalo residents, especially those struggling.

In the Buffalo Police Dept (BPD) budget workshop, Commissioner Gramaglia reported that a wellness coordinator is now on staff at BPD. The coordinator is focusing on the mental health needs of the officers.

As the weather has warmed, more people illegally drive ATVs around Buffalo. Commissioner Gramaglia said they plan to intervene using helicopters and doing mass impounds. He reports that these programs were effective previously.

The commissioner reported that in 2022 violent crime was down 15%, and property crime was up 11% compared to 2021. Property crime increase is largely driven by increased car thefts (specifically related to Hyundai and Kia cars).

In 2023, there has been an 11% decrease in violent crime and a 38% increase in property crime, again related to car theft; 85% of those car thefts are Kias and Hyundais.

CM Scanlon asked if Kias were removed and whether the crime would trend downward. Commissioner Gramaglia reported that larcenies would still be up and blamed bail reform, saying, “You can’t lock anybody up.”The commissioner reported that shootings are down 29%, and Homicides are down 72%.

The commissioner reported that the BPD had switched to a new cloud-based record management system, which he says will minimize labor for all departments in the BPD.

Additionally, the BPD plans to upgrade its body camera system. As part of this, the BPD will use a device that automatically turns on the body cam of any officer that pulls their weapon (and those around them). The BPD also purchased virtual reality systems for taser and side arm training.

The commissioner explained that 20% of the BPD’s overtime budget is contractually required. Commissioner Gramaglia reported that the 5/14 Tops massacre required $370,000 in police overtime, the November 2022 storm required $50,000 for police overtime, and the December blizzard required over $500,000 for police overtime. Some of this overtime should be reimbursed.

CP Pridgen wants the city to charge for the BPD’s services at sporting events, concerts, and other large events. There are mechanisms in other municipalities to reimburse policing costs at events.

CM Bollman asked whether the BPD could increase the number of cameras around the city. The BPD rep stated that 62-77% of the camera budget goes to maintaining current cameras, so no new cameras can be purchased currently. 

Public Hearing
Note: name spellings are as accurate as possible but may be incorrect. Thank you for your understanding. 

During the Common Council Budget Hearings and Budget Workshops, the Council held a Public Hearing on Tuesday, May 16th, at 5 pm. A total of 38 community speakers attended to provide feedback on the proposed budget.

Around 20% of the speakers expressed concerns about missing children and requested transparency from the Buffalo Police Department (BPD) regarding their procedures. Kelly Galloway, the founder of Project Mona's House, highlighted sex trafficking cases in Buffalo Public School high schools and emphasized the need for missing child kits. Other speakers, such as Bella Rose and Devon Patterson, mentioned the high percentage of missing children of color and called for more resources to combat trafficking. Leslie Nickerson questioned the allocation of the increased budget for the BPD and its usage for training and community transparency.

Another 20% of the speakers raised concerns about budgeting for a rook vehicle, primarily for snow emergencies. However, many doubted its proposed use, citing the manufacturer's description primarily for riot response and SWAT teams. Speakers Bridge Rauch, Victoria Ross, Sonya Rice, and Ashley Brunner suggested alternative uses for the allocated funds, such as purchasing snow removal equipment and funding emergency response. 

Other concerns voiced by speakers included:

  • Staff raises,
  • Tax increases,
  • Poor infrastructure in frontline communities,
  • Support for the Office of New Americans, 
  • Legal support for the Common Council, and 
  • Increased financial support for the City Swim Project.

Speaker Luz Velez criticized the long-term viability of a 12% staff salary increase and up to 38% tax hikes. Joseph Allen and Ashley Brunner expressed concerns about raising taxes and granting raises. Speaker Clarke Gocker, Director of Policy and Strategy at PUSH Buffalo, recommended using American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding for rental inspections, rent stabilization policies, rental assistance, weatherization, and healthy home investments. Speakers Ashley Hardy and Brent Rawlins highlighted infrastructure issues, while Speaker Maxine Murphey requested support for homeownership programs.

Speakers Dao Kamara, Flor Zaldivar, and Leighton Jones advocated for the Office of New Americans' funding and language access improvements. Speaker Daniel Zack wants Law Department funding transferred to the legislative branch so they can have their own legal team, stating certain legislation has been tabled for years waiting for the Law Department in City Hall to provide feedback. Zack expressed concerns over conflicts of interest, suggesting the Mayor does not want the Law Department working on advancing certain issues. Speaker Mike Switalski, Executive Director of the City Swim Project, sought increased financial support citing its positive impact on Buffalo's youth, particularly for children of color and low-income children.