Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of April 5, 2021

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of April 5, 2021

Date: April 9, 2021

By Orlando Dickson |

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, the Common Council held five meetings. On this rare occasion, we have notes from all five. The Civil Service Committee concerns all matters relating to the creation and abolishment of Buffalo officers and employees. The Finance Committee focuses on the budget and issuance of bonds. The Education Committee pertains to issues regarding teachers, schools, school property, training, and the Board of Education. The Legislation Committee addresses local laws, ordinances, and general legislation, except for civil service matters. The Community Development Committee focuses on issues about work or improvement using revenue from another government unit.

During the Civil Service Meeting, the committee heard a presentation on providing an in vitro fertilization (IVF) benefit to City of Buffalo employees through Governor Cuomo’s 2020 insurance law. The law requires significant group health insurance policies to cover IVF prescriptions, provide continuous access to fertility preservation services, and prohibits age restrictions on IVF coverage. A BPD detective and a nurse presented information showing how the coverage would provide quality life and comparative cost improvements for City Employees. The Council adopted a resolution requesting the Commissioner of Human Resources to compile information around previous decisions to opt-out of IVF coverage, cost savings, and a timeline for implementing change. The commissioner must send her report no later than Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

During the Finance Meeting, the committee recommended for approval a contract for a workforce management platform of human resource management software. The contract authorizes Buffalo to enter a five-year agreement with GovernmentJobs.com, doing business as NEOGOV. The purpose of the software is to provide public employment applicant tracking and reporting system that will allow applicants to search, apply, and track progress for city employment opportunities. The software fulfills the processing and monitoring of municipal civil service examinations, scoring, electronic notifications, and list placement of applicants for the HR department. 

The contract Buffalo's Chief Information Officer estimates the first year to cost $70,885, with each following year costing $64,551 for a total of $329,089. However, the contract document includes an additional $0.25 "CyberSource Exam Payment" that entitles the contractor to that amount for every transaction. The City of Buffalo already charges an application fee, but the contract does not specify what qualifies as a "CyberSource Exam Payment." The exam payment sounds like NEOGOV profits directly from applicants on every civil service exam application that goes through their website. Common Council expects to approve the item on April 13, 2021, and send it to Mayor Brown to sign.

During the Education Meeting, Dr. Keresztes, the Board of Education's Chief of Intergovernmental Affairs, presented an update on Buffalo's plan to reintegrate students into in-person learning during COVID-19. Dr. Keresztes stated that by April 26, 2021, all high school students return to school under a hybrid schedule, and on May 10, 2021, all elementary school students will return to school on a hybrid schedule. The hybrid schedule would be two days at school and three days out of school, with higher needs students attending in-person five days a week. Dr. Keresztes stated summer programs would continue as they did in previous years, but the superintendent plans to have an additional "intervention-based enrichment opportunity" working closely with Say Yes Buffalo. 

Councilmember Rivera sent a letter on March 5, 2021, requesting Senators Kennedy and Ryan to designate community schools as pop-up COVID-19 vaccination sites. Dr. Keresztes confirmed in the Education Meeting that South Side Elementary and MST High School would offer vaccines on Saturdays in the future.

Dr. Keresztes announced that eight schools would start providing halal lunch options in September with the future intent to allow every school in the district later. The halal lunches will initially be available at School 6; School 45; School 94; School 95; School 207; School 198; School 304; and School 197. Dr. Keresztes says schools will provide parents the opportunity to sign up for the meals before the current school year ends and throughout the summer.

During the two-and-a-half hour-long Legislation Meeting, Common Council gave comments and heard resident input on Councilmember Wyatt's proposed resolution and ordinance amendment on the speed camera program. Wyatt's proposal has two main parts: the resolution calling the Speed Violation Camera Monitoring Program ("Speed Program") a failure and an ordinance amendment. The resolution requires refund checks within 90 days, replaces speed cameras with solar LED radar signs, and prohibits installing new cameras without a Common Council majority vote. The resolution also requires the installation of speed limit signs and beacons and lastly requires multiple non-punitive traffic calming measures such as speed humps and markings. 

PPG Community Researcher Colleen Kristich, LMSW, spoke at the committee meeting in support of Wyatt's resolution and amendment. Colleen stated that Councilmember Wyatt's amendment is a "triple-win solution" because it enhances traffic safety, protects school children, and does not burden residents with extractive fines. Colleen also brought attention to how vital the amendment is in supporting traffic calming infrastructure as a first resort and enforcement tools as a last resort. 

Peter Rizzo returned to speak again on the Speed Program as a Delaware District resident. Mr. Rizzo cited a respected study that shows speed cameras reduce child pedestrian accidents by 13%, but that engineering improvements reduce child pedestrian accidents by 62%, which is a difference of almost half. Mr. Rizzo specifically noted that those same engineering improvements are present in Councilmember Wyatt's amendment.

Multiple residents of New York City came to speak in support of the Speed Program. These residents came to represent Families for Safe Streets. Each member spoke about improving the current speed cameras rather than dismantling them. Their testimony shared their tragic experiences losing a relative in a preventable traffic accident. Families for Safe Streets is affiliated with Transportation Alternatives, headquartered in Lower Manhattan in New York City.

Delaware District resident and MSW Galina Swords spoke in support of Councilmember Wyatt's resolution and amendments. Swords talked about the importance of cities ensuring they make decisions based on comprehensive, data-driven, and evidence-based practices. She cited the National Department of Transportation recommendations for each municipality to take an interdisciplinary approach to traffic calming involving engineering, enforcement, and education.

Jalonda Hill returned to speak in support of Councilmember Wyatt's resolution. She cited unconstitutional BPD Strike Force checkpoints in 2012, mentioning the Common Council installed 13 new traffic fees in 2018 as evidence that "Buffalo has a long history of using safety as a guise for revenue generation." Hill also explained that Councilmember Wyatt's resolution and amendment would restore some of the damage caused by infrastructure racism and the lack of investment in public spaces in underrepresented communities.

Marco DiAquoi, Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director in NYC, came to speak in support of the Speed Program. Mr. DiAquoi talked about the importance of removing police from traffic enforcement due to those interactions increasing racial disparities in policing. He specifically requested that the Council keep the speed cameras "alive" and refuse to increase school zones' speed limits.

Niagara District Resident India Walton specifically pushed back against the NYC residents who came to speak on the Buffalo Speed Camera Program. She stated that she does not want non-Buffalo residents who have corporate interests — and who receive payment — to tell Buffalonians what is their best interest. India said that she believes Buffalonians can decide on their solutions because Buffalonians know themselves best. 

Buffalo Attorney Peter Reese returned to speak in favor of Councilmember Wyatt's resolution to dismantle the Speed Program. Mr. Reese noted that residents must receive timely and essential opportunities to comply with the traffic change to follow any traffic pattern change. Mr. Reese cites multiple traffic routes covered by cameras which provide no notice of a traffic change, making it impossible for drivers to comply. He noted that the installed signs are a quarter-mile away from the nearest school, making it harder for drivers to know whether they comply.

Many more speakers at the meeting all brought great commentary on the Speed Program, too many to note in this one report. We implore our readers to watch the entire session if they wish to hear every comment against and supporting the Speed Program.

Councilmember Wyatt noted that his proposal will implement 24/7 traffic calming measures, while the cameras are only active part of the day. Wyatt also spoke about how he received stories from residents using their stimulus checks to pay speed camera tickets. Councilmember Wingo agreed that the program should improve but did not agree that the Council should dismantle it.

Councilmember Rivera reiterated that Councilmember Wyatt is the one who introduced the initial idea of speed cameras. Rivera stated this was a significant and influential fact, considering Wyatt is now fervently trying to dismantle the program. Rivera then noted the program is not functional enough, and the Council should restart from scratch. Councilmember Nowakowski stated that the federal government is currently discussing sending millions in infrastructure funds to Buffalo that Common Council could use to fund traffic calming measures.

When they moved to a vote, the Legislation Committee faced some process confusion about voting on both the resolution and amendment. In the end, the Committee voted to adopt Wyatt’s resolution while tabling the amendment for further changes.

There was a critical discussion about Council resolutions buried beneath the confusion that is important to point out. Multiple councilmembers explained both the power and shortcomings of the Common Council adopting a resolution instead of an ordinance amendment. While resolutions are not binding, they show the Common Council's support for an idea or a policy. A resolution also gives the executive branch the authority to take the actions Common Council has called for, without requesting further permission or authorization from the Council. However, a resolution only provides that permission within the confines of the city charter, state, and federal law. Regardless of solid wording in the resolution, the resolution may not violate the law or usurp another branch of government's legal authority. 

During the Community Development Meeting, Common Council heard a resident group presentation on creating a Buffalo Beautiful Commission ("The Commission"). The Commission, if approved, will be responsible for cleaning litter and helping prevent further littering in the City of Buffalo. The Council tabled the item for further discussion among councilmembers.

Common Council heard community testimony, both written and verbal, against the building of a Compass House group home at 308 Highgate. Dozens of the Highgate community members stated they have no problem installing a group home; however, this would be the fourth group home nestled within a one-mile radius. The Highgate residents want Compass House to build a group home and do not want group homes to oversaturate the Highgate community. While group homes are an essential service to the Buffalo community, they bring down property value each time a company creates a new one in an area. Nearly a month ago, Highgate residents stated that Compass House had failed to meet with them to discuss their issues about the intended project intended with no community input. Highgate residents noted that Compass House had refused to meet with any Highgate community members since that meeting.

Councilmember Wyatt stated he would disapprove of the project without community input. He also said that he would work with whatever agencies to ensure they require community input before approval of anything related to the project. One councilmember noted that oversaturation of social services and group homes in one area occurs because unscrupulous providers often choose regions that are less likely to provide pushback. Common Council tabled the item for further discussion.

PPG Community Researcher Sarah Wooton spoke in support of the Council providing owner-occupant purchasers with access to homes sold in the city auction. The proposed resolution directs the City to research ways to prioritize owner-occupant purchasers on the first day of the auction, and consider partnerships with grants and low-interest loan providers. I'll remind readers that one of PPG's ten main priorities on the 2021 Community Agenda is to promote local homeownership by changing Buffalo's in rem property auction. The term "in rem" means a court's power over an item of real property. We're happy to announce Councilmembers Wyatt, Nowakowski, Golombek, and Council President Pridgen added on as co-sponsors, which bodes well for this goal! Common Council tabled the item until the commissioner and Councilmember Bollman can iron out details — so stay tuned for more information!

Need more than just a summary? Contact us at info@ppgbuffalo.org, or find full meeting information and schedules here: http://buffalony.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx