|Date:||September 15, 2023|
by Caitlin Love Crowell and Regine Ndanga
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 Finance, Civil Service, Legislation, and Community Development Meetings. ‘Council Member’ is abbreviated as CM; ‘Council President’ as CP; and ‘Majority Leader’ as ML.
The Finance Committee meeting began with the Department of Community Services and Recreational Programming asking for a retroactive increase in funding to combat homelessness. These funds would go to the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, the Buffalo Urban League, Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), the Salvation Army, and Compass House. The committee recommended approval of the request.
Delano Dowell, Commissioner of Treasury and Finance, presented a report of the city’s use of American Rescue Plan Funds. He reported that of the $331 million the city received through ARP, they had obligated $128 million and spent $116 million. ML Rivera asked whether district-specific monies had yet become available, and Commissioner Dowell said that had happened a week or a week and a half ago. He said that the administration is still working on processes for businesses to apply for funds.
The police requested a contract renewal with WNY Polygraph Services, but Commissioner Gramaglia did not appear to explain a discrepancy in amounts. The request was sent on without recommendation.
Greg Szymanski, Investment and Debt officer for the City of Buffalo, noted that some of the city’s borrowed funds-- an average of well over $25 million a year-- were going unspent, as were many other city monies. CM Wyatt noted that with rising interest rates, these borrowed funds were unnecessarily costly. CM Bollman, CM Wyatt, and ML Rivera wished that "Buffalo" [perhaps meaning city departments or the Mayor’s administration] would move more expeditiously to spend money once projects are authorized.
CP Pridgen and CM Wyatt have introduced a resolution to help gig workers receive ARP funding; because they do not have brick-and-mortar locations, they tend to be left out of recovery programs. The resolution asks for the city to develop a mechanism to correct this. The motion was tabled.
ML Rivera spoke with Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams to see if council members could use their discretionary funds to help out small organizations (with, for example, rent), as they used to be able to under an older policy; the comptroller agreed.
The primary focus of the Civil Service Committee meeting was the need for greater transparency regarding city job vacancies. CM Wyatt expressed frustration over the prolonged delay in receiving information, emphasizing that the delay was disrespectful and neglectful. ML Rivera shared his disappointment that this information had not been delivered despite previous discussions, highlighting the importance of informed decision-making during budgeting. CM Nowakowski pointed out that information was readily forthcoming only when City Hall [again, likely referring to Mayor Brown] “needed to make a deal.”
Council moved to approve the appointment of a new police captain, at a starting salary of $107,227.
In the Legislation Committee meeting, the main discussion was the BusPatrol School Bus Arm Camera Services Contract. This is a plan to install cameras on all school buses to record drivers who break the law by driving around stopped buses.
ML Rivera asked Steve Randazzo, the Executive Vice President of Bus Patrol America, how drivers will be educated about this new system. Randazzo said they plan to engage in a broad public awareness campaign. There will be a 30 day grace period, during which warning notices will be sent out. The education program will be offered in multiple languages.
ML Rivera asked about consequences when someone violates the law, including who issues the tickets and who reviews the camera evidence. Randazzo explained that they employ artificial intelligence (“Ava,”), followed by human evaluation; this data is then reviewed by law enforcement. Each ticket will be $250.
CP Pridgen raised concerns about complaints regarding ticketing when drivers were instructed to pass parked buses, citing a Times Union article, and asked whether the cameras would be on all buses in the city. Randazzo said that the system would allow for review.
The city will not purchase outright the cameras, which cost thousands of dollars each. Instead, Bus Patrol America and the City of Buffalo will share the ticketing income. Randazzo also mentioned the possibility of a training partnership, for students and interns to learn installation and trade skills. The motion was sent without recommendation.
Following a new city requirement for licenses for vape, tobacco, and hookah shops, many establishments applied for these permits. Several members of the public spoke against them, citing neighborhood concerns and nearby schools.
In the Community Development Committee, CM Feroleto wanted to ensure that excess funds from a city-auctioned house were returned to the estate of the owner. The council tabled the motion to sell the house until this issue is resolved.
Kinser Pointer, Executive Director of the African Heritage Economic Initiative, spoke about his organization becoming the designated developer for the African Heritage Food Cooperative on Carlton Street. The council moved to approve this.
Members of the public came to speak about the renaming of Broderick Park. Council heard a letter from Board of Education President Sharon Belton-Cottman, in support of changing it to “Freedom Park,” because of the importance of the foot of West Ferry in the Underground Railroad. Michael J. Broderick spoke about how his family had come together to discuss this. They appreciated that the park honored their great-great-grandfather’s important work founding the West Side Rowing Club. However, though they hoped that his name continued to be recognized somehow, the Broderick family had decided to support the name change.
Letitia Edwards spoke about the importance of reforming the city’s 2005 policy about homesteading. She and other residents take care of vacant lots adjacent to their properties, but are not able to purchase the lots, because it is unreasonably difficult for people to purchase unused lots. Howard Grynspan, Director of Real Estate OSP, promised to look into it; he said that their office does not often receive requests. The authors of this summary note that the application link on the city’s website for this program is broken.
Maria Ta of Buffalo StringWorks and Andrea O Suilleabhain of Partnership for the Public Good, both working with Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, spoke about re-establishing arts funding (Community Agenda plank #6). They explained that there’s an existing city budget line for the arts. The budget line is funded every year, but the city doesn’t distribute the funding. They asked for the council to establish consistent and transparent processes for applying for funds, and to work to make sure that budgeted funds actually make their way to organizations, rather than languishing. They also asked for the city to fund the development of a comprehensive Cultural Plan. The council tabled the issue.