|Date:||September 29, 2023|
by Megan Battista, Regine Ndanga, and Caitlin Crowell
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 Community Development, Finance, Education, Civil Service, Legislation, and Claims Committee meetings. ‘Council Member’ is abbreviated as CM; ‘Council President’ as CP; and ‘Majority Leader’ as ML.
The Community Development Committee meeting focused on Spectrum’s decision to move the public access channels from their original space to the 1300s, making them less accessible to residents. Representatives from Spectrum came and reinforced that they will not be changing the location of public access channels until a new franchise contract is negotiated between the City of Buffalo and Spectrum. Almost all the CMs expressed dissatisfaction with this response from Spectrum and reinforced the need for individuals to have easy access to government access stations, citing the Buffalo Blizzard as evidence of this. CM Wyatt walked out of the meeting in frustration. CM Golombek tabled the item, expressing to Spectrum that they need a different answer before winter. Spectrum representatives agreed to go back to corporate and express their concerns.
CM Wyatt asked for the Division of Real Estate to move rapidly on a vacant lot purchase request in his district. The resident attempting to purchase the lot is already caring for it. CM Wyatt stressed the importance of moving vacant lots into the hands of resident owners.
The Finance Committee meeting began with a request by Lisa Hicks, Director of Development for the OSP (Office of Strategic Planning), to roll out the mayor’s proposed program for disbursing small business grants from the ARPA funds. The total amount will be $3.5 million, granted in amounts of $7,500, $12,500, and $25,000, equally divided into the nine council districts. OSP aims to have all the funds distributed by 2026. CM Wyatt asked whether this application process would be more flexible than the previous one and hoped that the program would be aggressively advertised. ML Rivera asked for confirmation that this could be specifically targeted toward a struggling district, in his case the Grant-Ferry commercial area. The council approved the plan.
Gregg Szymanski from the Comptroller’s Office reported that in August the city had received $2.6 million from the Tribal Compact with the Seneca Nation. This is a quarterly payment, depending on gaming revenues.
Deputy Comptroller Delano Dowell reported about Rescue Plan funds. So far, he said, the city has spent $136 million of the $331 million and “encumbered” (or committed to spend) $26 million. A balance of $169 million remains, which must be encumbered by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Dowell said that by September 30, 2023, the groups the council had already reviewed for funding would find out whether they would be funded and at what amount
In the Education Committee, district representatives spoke about the importance of keeping the streets near schools safe (e.g. slowing traffic, street striping).
During the Civil Service Committee meeting, council members discussed excessive administrative leave for city employees, prompted by a recent news item. Chief Auditor Kevin Kaufman reported that 12 employees-- about 2.5 workers per thousand-- had been suspended with pay this year. This includes Family Medical Leave work as well as suspensions with pay. The Comptroller’s Office is continuing this investigation.
After a City Hall elevator fire on June 13, CM Bollman asked about fire drill and emergency protocol. In particular, he wondered about accessibility for folks with disabilities and mobility concerns. Fire Department Commissioner William Renaldo explained that updated policy information and training would be forthcoming.
Much of the meeting revolved around the "Where Are We At?" (W.A.W.A) emergency management situation, in the wake of last year’s catastrophic snowstorm. Council members and speakers from the public expressed alarm that even though it is nearly October, city departments (overseen by the mayor) had not yet prepared a plan for a winter emergency. Fire Commissioner Renaldo said that the department was reposting the job opening for an Emergency Services Manager, and Finance Commissioner Delano Dowell spoke about hiring a snowplow Fleet Manager. Neither of these positions have yet been filled. CM Wyatt requested that for future winters, a report and plan be available by April.
Commissioner of the Department of Public Works, Nate Marton, spoke about the Emergency Task Force, which Mayor Brown appointed in June. Marton explained that it's made up of politicians, community members, and business, utility, and social services groups, and it has already met twice. The meetings are public, with minutes available, and they might be streamed live. He said the task force's progress would be communicated to the public through press announcements. Marton said that the city is buying more street snowplows but there's no plan for sidewalk snow removal this year. CM Bollman inquired about warming shelter locations; Marton explained that the city will be focusing on Buffalo’s six community centers. CP Rivera expressed dismay that the Police Department had not let the council know where their department was at and had not sent a representative.
Connie Joyce, a resident of Seneca-Babcock, spoke about her and her neighbors’ harrowing experiences during the storm. She emphasized the need for generators in school buildings and asked for a preparedness timeline. Dennice Barr, from the Fruit Belt neighborhood, shared frustrations about the blizzard and the lack of preparation. She called for clear plans regarding medication, healthcare, and resources, and emphasized the need for communication with community leaders. She spoke of how crucial neighborhood members had been, and said, “I have yet to hear a conversation in this common council or anywhere else . . . about those people and giving them any kind of credit for what happened.”
All discussions about administrative leave and emergency preparedness were tabled.
In the Legislation Committee meeting, CP Pridgen updated on the Affordable Housing Task Force's progress, highlighting its diverse composition and four key focus areas: tenant rights; rental affordability; housing conditions and law enforcement; and affordable housing supply.
The council voted to approve a change to the City Charter, to require that the deadline for an Annual Snow Plan be moved to April. This amendment will be sent to the mayor’s office for approval.
The Claims Committee approved payments per the Law Department’s proposals. These included a $255,000 settlement to compensate the Drayton family for a police home invasion.