|Date:||December 18, 2020|
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 committee meetings, but our attention will focus on the Finance Meeting, and the Community Development Meeting. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Community Development Committee focuses on matters pertaining to work or improvement using revenue from another government unit.
During the Finance Meeting, Common Council met with the Buffalo Comptroller's Office and financing department to discuss Buffalo borrowing money from the joint fund between the City and the Buffalo School District. The comptroller and financing department answered with three points. The arrangement between the City of Buffalo and Buffalo School Board is unique in New York State. The unique nature of the city’s relationship with the school board allowed previous comptrollers to borrow and repay the money from the joint fund on behalf of the city. The comptroller and financing department alluded to creating a committee to monitor repayment through a multi-year budgeting plan.
Common Council also discussed a purchase of new vehicles that the body approved last year. Councilmember Rivera wants the Buffalo Police Department (BPD) Commissioner to ensure he assigns all of BPD's new vehicles as "in the field," with only the oldest vehicles in the fleet as take-home vehicles. Councilmember Wyatt wants to ensure that BPD installs GPS devices in every vehicle, and that Administration, Finance, Policy & Urban Affairs (the finance department) tracks usage, mileage, and gas.
During the two-hour long Community Development Meeting, the Council discussed two major issues: Councilmember Scanlon's issue with the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) plan to return to in-person learning, and the inquiry into the school zone speed camera program. Scanlon and Dr. Keresztes ("Dr. K"), the BPS Chief of Government Affairs, had a back and forth discussion about the plan that lasted nearly 30 minutes. In the second half of the meeting, Councilmembers Wyatt, Rivera, Pridgen, and Feroleto had a debate with Traffic Commissioner Helfer ("Helfer") and Senior Deputy Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers ("Chambers") regarding whether the school zone camera program is a failure, or a success.
Councilmember Scanlon initiated Dr. K. by explaining that his constituents brought numerous concerns to him about the school board's lack of a good BPS plan for in-person learning. Scanlon's main point is kids are losing learning value at home and deserve in-person instruction. He also stated parents are asking him directly what the plan is – and what's happening – as they do not have answers. In addition, parents have called Councilmember Scanlon saying they have yet to receive the necessary materials for virtual learning. The councilmember also noted that numerous other New York State schools have opened and asked why Buffalo is taking nine months considering that fact. However, Councilmember Scanlon's question is confusing. Considering every school district is different, every area has community spread rates that vary – and a different numbers of schools and unique number of students – school administrators must create specific plans tailored to their district. Comparing one district's plan to another's – or even one particular school's plan to another – is similar to comparing apples to oranges. (Apples are better, by the way, unless we are talking juice, but I digress.)
Dr. K responded to Councilmember Scanlon, stating that the current plan is to open Buffalo Public Schools on February 1, 2021. The BPS Chief of Government Affairs pointed out, "We can compensate for learning loss, we cannot compensate for the loss of life due to this virus," to set the tone for the rest of his comments. The top infections disease expert in Buffalo specifically advised the Buffalo School Superintendent of the dangers of opening back up schools too soon. According to Dr. K, the expert stated, "The community spread in Buffalo is too powerful for you to put 34,000 children back in school, 10,000 adults with all of the support staff, and then all of the connectors to those children and those adults." Dr K. also highlighted the dangers of starting school now would add a 250,000-member conglomerate of people into community space when community spread is at its highest.
According to Dr. K, all school principals have one standard planning template and format, and they all have to follow the same step-by-step process to identify the needs of their students, faculty, and staff. However, each school has diverse, individual needs that require assessing specific concerns, so there is no one-size-fits-all plan. Each school knows what it needs best, so the school board took the time to ensure the district includes each school's needs in its overall scheme. Dr. K also stated that very few New York State schools are open, and nearly every NYS school that has opened has not stayed open consistently. The State Education Commissioner noted that Buffalo's virtual model is the model the rest of NYS should follow, and it indeed has been shared with the rest of the state. Dr. K closed stating that they do need to do a better job of communicating to parents to assuage parent frustration, but they will not take a chance with losing students to COVID-19 because of high levels of frustration. Schools will reopen only when there is a collective team decision between the medical director, the health advisory council, and the school board that ensures the highest available safeties are in place.
During the Community Development meeting, the Council also had a hefty and vibrant discussion around the school zone camera program. This last portion of the meeting started with a lawyer from the community who stated various legal concerns with the tickets people have received. He said that notice was incorrect on some tickets, tickets marked camera identification numbers as null, and at least one camera was too far away from a school for its tickets to be valid. However, Corporation Counsel Chambers argued that the tickets meet "the minimum standards of NY State law."
Councilmember Feroleto stated multiple issues he has heard from constituents about the vendor in particular. The signage and cameras were supposed to move to more visible locations, which did not happen, and his residents received tickets before the program started. In addition, the original appeals phone number placed on the tickets dialed to an erotic fantasy hotline, and when the vendor corrected the phone number, calls rarely connected. When calls did connect, it was often voicemail, and the vendor rarely returned the calls. Commissioner Helfer admitted that the cameras sent around 20,000 tickets out late, so the late fees were supposed to be invalidated. Still, Feroleto states his constituents received letters from the vendor threatening late fees and registration suspension for nonpayment. Councilmember Feroleto noted in one instance, a constituent received a ticket three days after their appeals hearing took place. Feroleto previously asked for data from the administration and the vendor, which they failed to bring to this meeting. Because of the lack of data, he stated, "I have zero confidence in this vendor. Take the cameras down and return them to the vendor."
Commissioner Helfer then stated that the signage was changed on November 18, about a month after Common Council asked them to do so. Helfer said that resident compliance with speed limits has gone from 34% to 96%, so the program is working. He also defended the late notices, partially blaming post office delays. While Helfer conceded that there are issues, he asserted most tickets are valid – though he did not show any statistics to the Council to support his statement. Helfer suggested that constituents who cannot connect to the phone line on the ticket, and cannot connect to the online website for appeals, call 311 to ask for a draw.
Corporation Counsel Chambers stated that the City Of Buffalo's contract with the vendor allows 30 days to fix any issues that arise with the system. Thus far, the vendor fixed every issue the commissioner reported within 10 days. Pridgen asked what the City's options were as far as changing the program, considering the contract. Chambers stated that under the emergency powers granted to Mayor Brown in light of the pandemic, he holds the sole authority to pause the program, but the Common Council retains the control to pull out of the contract. She placed great emphasis on the City's possible liability if they pull out of the contract without some breach of contract, basing her opinion on the Council's awareness that the cameras have achieved their goals of traffic compliance – even with the issues that exist.
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