|Date:||December 22, 2022|
By Sarah Wooton and Tanvier Peart |
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's summary focuses on three meetings. The Civil Service Committee addresses matters relating to human resources, civil services, and personnel. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Community Development Committee focuses on issues about work or improvement using revenue from another government unit.
David Rodriguez, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners ("the Board") for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority ("BMHA"), spoke before the Civil Service Committee to answer questions about its efforts to provide low-income public housing in the City of Buffalo ("the City") and seek reappointment. Yvonne McCray, Vice Chair of the Board, also spoke to the committee about her dedication to improving BMHA and her hope to serve another term.
Council Member Wyatt wants to ensure residents receive the proper attention and care amid concerns in his district. Council Member Wingo asked Ms. McCray if the Board receives compensation. She mentioned the option for board members to receive it but declined for the money to go to resident-elected commissioners. Council Member Bollman echoed Council Member Wingo's praise for Ms. McCray and her dedication to serving BMHA residents.
Charles Pressley, Staff Counsel at the Erie County Medical Center, spoke about his appointment before the committee on Zoom. The committee approved the BMHA board members' appointment.
The City's Human Resources Department in the Civil Service Division sent a letter in response to an item concerning drug testing in the Buffalo Police Department ("BPD") stating, "the Civil Service Office has no jurisdiction regarding random drug testing for the Buffalo Police Department." Carin Gordon, Assistant Corporation Counsel, couldn't elaborate on negotiation options in the bargaining agreement with the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association and would need to follow up. "It mystifies me how often we're willy-nilly doing things and not putting it in writing for whatever reason," Council Member Wyatt noted. "I was always taught having good policy is good policy." Council Member Nowakowski wants to clarify ambiguity by seeking clarification from Corporation Counsel.
Council Members Rivera and Wingo discussed the disproportionate impact of former cannabis laws on Black and brown people—and why we must do more for people to have job opportunities and don't face repercussions with the new state law in place. Council President Pridgen mentioned Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes—champion of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act—is willing to meet with Common Council herself and with staff from Albany to navigate the new law and the necessary adjustments. Employment candidates who consume cannabis outside the workplace should not result in a lack of consideration. Council Member Rivera suggests remedying contractual issues that fall within Council's purview and does not infringe on state law.
At the Community Development Committee, two development projects received the go-ahead from council members. One is an eco-friendly laundromat at the corner of Laurel Street and Michigan Avenue in the Fruit Belt. The second is a building with affordable commercial space at 1200 Jefferson Avenue. The development representative said that this building would be a "nonprofit hub" and that Say Yes Buffalo will expand into the space.
Council members agreed to write a resolution supporting Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church to receive a historic designation at the state level. The council will send this resolution to the state once it's passed.
Council Member Wyatt urged the City of Buffalo Real Estate Department to sell a vacant lot in his district to a trusted resident. The Council approved a resident to purchase the lot back in 2021 and paid his deposit to the City. Then, a year later, a city representative sent this resident a letter to say they're denying the purchase because there is a "higher and better use" for the lot. Council Member Wyatt expressed frustration that he's not aware of any city plans for the lot, so the City should sell the lot to this resident.
The Community Development Committee focused the rest of the meeting on a discussion surrounding legislation to protect tenants in Buffalo. Council President Pridgen started the conversation by saying he wants to see new legislation on the books in the coming year. The Council will form a task force to discuss and draft legislation. This task force will include representatives from PUSH Buffalo, Partnership for the Public Good, the City's legal department, the business sector, and a nonaffiliated resident who experienced eviction. Pridgen confirmed that Common Council would "move forth with a task force in order to get to legislation. Not a task force just to talk."
Twenty-four residents spoke about their concerns as tenants—how they’ve been impacted directly and how the high rents and poor housing conditions impact their families and neighbors. One tenant explained, "Last winter, I lived with no heat...No one should have to suffer like that. To add insult to injury, after I began withholding my rent in lieu of the repairs, he took me to Buffalo City Housing Court and successfully evicted me, despite the fact that I had the money in hand at the time of the hearing. That left me homeless for seven months."
Other tenants described unaffordable rent increases, missing windows, mice, mold, structural concerns, and more. According to one speaker, there were more tenants who wanted to speak but weren't allowed because Council did not have time.
In 2016, council members passed a resolution to create an Affordable Rent and Housing Task Force. However, Common Council never appointed members, and the task force did not meet. Some speakers expressed concern that Pridgen's promise of a task force rang hollow after Council did not convene the 2016 task force.
Near the end of the meeting, Council Member Wyatt gave an update on the Hopewell Opioid Treatment Center. He explained that Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes spoke with representatives from the Seneca Nation. As a result, the Seneca Nation decided not to move forward with the treatment center. Council Member Wyatt sincerely thanked the Seneca Nation for listening to his residents' concerns and taking action.
In the Finance Committee meeting, the Council approved a renewal of the City's stadium lease with the Buffalo Bisons. In this discussion, we learned that the City pays $30,000 in annual utility costs for the Bisons, plus water costs, property damage insurance ($70,000), and some garbage collection. Council President Pridgen questioned why the City should pay these costs when the Bisons are a for-profit entity. Pridgen also expressed he'd like the Corporation Counsel to examine all new lease negotiations for city payments to for-profit companies like this.
The Comptroller's Office then presented to the committee on the City’s finances for the most recent fiscal year (ending June 30, 2022). The takeaway from this conversation is that the City's finances are steady right now. This is largely because of the American Rescue Plan funding and some other increased revenues. Overall, the City's expenses are still higher than its revenues without this federal funding. Council Members Rivera, Nowakowski, and Bollman remarked they were happy to see $24 million in reserve funds—aka rainy day funds—in case of emergency.
Council approved a new reassessment project to occur from January 2023 to March 2025. The city will contract with a company to assess all properties throughout the City of Buffalo. This revaluation will affect taxes in July 2025, and the City will pay $2.6 million over three years for this reassessment. Council members emphasized the importance of homeowners signing up for any eligible tax exemptions. See the list of tax exemptions here.
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