Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of November 20, 2023

Date: November 24, 2023

by 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 Finance, Legislation, Civil Service, and Community Development Committee meetings. ‘Council Member’ is abbreviated as CM; ‘Council President’ as CP; and ‘Majority Leader’ as ML.

The Civil Service Committee reviewed new job hires. These included the new fleet manager, emergency services manager, crossing guards (at just under $18/hour), and a new “Director of Infrastructure and Quality of Life” (at just over $100,000/year). The Comptroller’s office reported that the city has seven employees — all police officers — who are suspended with pay.

Gregg Szymanski, from the Comptroller’s office, started off the Finance Committee meeting with an explanation of sales tax revenues. These flow through the county, then to the control board.  In fiscal year 2023, Administration and Finance Commissioner Delano Dowell said the interest on the unspent $198 million in ARPA funds has amounted to $13 million, though the city had only expected $100,000.  The city is using this interest money to balance its budget. ML Rivera complained that ARPA money was just sitting accruing interest rather than being given out.

Commissioner Dowell said that the city was doing risk assessments for organizations asking for money. Because the city has awarded dramatically lower grants to applicants than what they applied for, it’s not certain that the organizations will be able to follow through with their original plans. They hope to give out the money by the end of this quarter. “That’s really unacceptable,” said CM Wyatt.

Commissioner Dowell discussed the city’s first quarter GAP report for fiscal year 2024. The GAP report outlines where revenues and expenditures differ from the city’s expected budget.  The commissioner projects the city will have a $2 million surplus at the end of fiscal year 2024 because of lower personnel and utility costs.

ML Rivera mentioned that there are 11 empty inspector positions in the budget. He pointed out that inspectors should be an enforcement arm of council policy, and he expressed frustration that these positions hadn’t been filled.

At the Legislation Committee meeting, Athenia Cyrus from the Affordable Housing Task Force (AHTF) spoke about their report’s recommendations:

·      updating Buffalo’s Fair Housing Law

·      conducting a vacancy study

·      increasing transparency about property owners

·      updating and upholding the proactive rental inspection program.

The AHTF report is available here.

CM Nowakowski invited people from his district to speak about non-owner-occupied short-term rentals (STRs) as the council is considering further regulating them. Allentown resident Mary Simpson said that turning homes into STRs deprives the city of the revenue that hotels provide. It also worsens Buffalo’s affordable housing crisis and increases gentrification. Resident Celia White asked for a moratorium on STR licensing until regulations are refined and consistently enforced. She noted that the majority of STRs in Buffalo operate without registering, so the city does not get taxes and cannot do safety inspections. Other residents said that because so many houses are being converted into STRs, it is increasingly difficult for Buffalonians to find apartments to rent or homes to buy. Several speakers pointed out that short-term renters do not increase the safety of residential neighborhoods like long-term residents do.

The Community Development Committee meeting began with discussions about Douglas Development’s construction on the site of the Mohawk parking ramp downtown. The planned development has committed to making 15% of the units affordable housing. These apartments must have “the same quality of construction, energy efficiency, and exterior appearance as market-rate units in the same building,” but they can have different interior finishes, “so long as they are durable [and] of good and new quality.”

A good number of community members, including young people, spoke in favor of a menthol cigarette sales ban in Buffalo.

Various department commissioners, along with Thomas Luby, the city’s new Emergency Services Manager, and James Cross, the new Fleet Manager, came to talk about the city’s snow plan. CM Scanlon asked about the city’s communications strategy, and Nate Marton from the DPW said they were working to reach out more aggressively during emergencies. He encouraged people to sign up for Buffalert, which allows messages to be translated into dozens of languages. Oswaldo Mestre, Director of Citizen Services, spoke about staffing warning centers. The city intends to use existing staff. Mestre stressed that emergency shelters were only for the most dire of circumstances; most people should stay in place. Residents could instead go to their friends’ and families’ houses — “somewhere you know the power [won’t go out.]”

During the 2022 storm, over 100,000 Buffalonians lost power.

CM Golombek asked whether the DPW had mandatory overtime during emergencies, because some city employees were refusing to add hours; he feels that the city should be able to require workers to work overtime. Commissioner Nate Marton said that DPW does not normally require overtime, but that in emergencies their policies sometimes change.

Head of the Local 282 Firefighters Union Vincent Ventresca addressed the council and said that the city’s emergency vehicle fleet was “in shambles.” He wondered why the city had not spent American Rescue Plan funds on emergency equipment, including generators for the many firehouses that still lack them.