|Date:||December 10, 2021|
By Becca Bass & Elizabeth Quinlan |
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 four meetings. For this summary, we will focus on the Community Development Committee, Finance Committee, and Committee of the Whole meetings. The Community Development Committee focuses on matters pertaining to work or improvement using revenue from another government unit. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Council also held a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss American Rescue Plan funds.
During the Community Development Committee meeting, Stephanie Crockatt, Executive Director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, announced Frederick Law Olmsted's 200th birthday next year, drawing national attention with many special events here in Buffalo. In honor of this occasion and to be "proactive" with planning, she requested six special event fee waivers for 2022. Councilmember Golombek expressed support for the idea. Councilmember Rivera asked for more information about the cost of a fee waiver.
Executive Director Crockatt also proposed 2022 fee adjustments for the golf courses located within the Olmsted Park Conservancy. Based upon a market analysis of public golf courses, she recommended an increase of daily fees by $1.00 per round and a 10% increase in the cost of season passes at Cazenovia Park, Delaware Park, and South Park. She explained that the cost of operation and labor are increasing, so fee adjustments are fair yet still affordable. She did not propose any change in facility rental rates.
Council President Pridgen attended a meeting between the Peace Bridge Apartments tenants and its new owners. Power Play Partners LLC bought the housing complex in August 2021, intending to renovate the property immediately. Pridgen was happy to report the owner of the Peace Bridge Apartments is listening to concerns from renters and showing more flexibility regarding evictions.
Councilmember Wyatt welcomed Millicent Homes owner Zalmen Felberbaum to the Community Development meeting and thanked him for partnering with the City of Buffalo to improve the property. In August 2021, Felberbaum, who resides in Brooklyn, New York, purchased Millicent Homes. Months later, in October, Wyatt met with residents and heard complaints about rodents; leaking ceilings; mold; flooded basements; broken windows; hanging gutters; furnaces and hot water tanks that are not working; high grass; and overgrown trees. Wyatt praised the City of Buffalo Office of Permit and Inspection Services for working cooperatively with Millicent property owners. He also thanked Buffalo Building Inspector Dave Zufuto for his diligence in citing violations and issuing an "order to remedy." Inspector Zufuto confirmed that with 118 units, repairs would take time. However, he said the owner has been responsive, especially regarding safety items like missing smoke detectors or missing smoke detector batteries. Councilmember Wyatt acknowledged recent improvements to the hedges out front but insisted that the property owners continue to go through the itemized list to make immediate improvements. Wyatt hopes to meet again with Millicent Homes residents in February.
The primary topics of discussion at this week's Finance Committee meeting included a review of November's cash flow reports for the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Board of Education, a discussion of the spending plan and a requested amendment for allocating American Rescue Plan Act funds, a brief report on the first quarter gap in the projected budget for the city, capital improvement projects related to the city's water system, and a resolution on prioritizing the purchase of electric vehicles.
In the cash flow report, the City of Buffalo started the month of November with $76 million and closed the month with just over $65 million in cash reserves. As discussed in previous meetings, several large transactions are anticipated in December, including the final $21.8 million debt payment and a $51 million net pension payment for city employees. Primary revenues in December will include a $19.1 New York State aid payment, and property taxes—which are due in December and July.
Jessica Brown, Director of the City of Buffalo's Administration and Finance, presented the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) spending plan. Brown shared that the city's team managing the funds will submit a quarterly report to the Common Council and updates anytime there are amendments to the approved plan. Brown reported that there are 26 total projects as part of the plan, including some that already launched. Specific programs reflected in the report submitted to Common Council included:
A handful of the above-mentioned ARP-funded contracts currently in negotiations will be presented to the Common Council at the next meeting for approval. Brown presented a request for an amendment to the approved spending plan to add a new patient care report software to the fire department to remain in compliance with new New York State laws. This represents an additional $300,000, some of which will be a relocation of underspent funds from the Fire Department's new breathing apparatuses, some of which will come from non-categorized ARP funds. The Finance Committee approved this amendment later in the meeting.
Councilmember Rivera expressed some concern that the Common Council isn't kept abreast of the ARP funds' planning and project prioritization process. Brown shared that there is an internal planning team that meets weekly. The team is currently creating a timeline for planned spending through 2024. Funds must be spent by 2026. This team will produce a timeline to share with the Common Council by early 2022. Additionally, the Common Council will appoint a liaison to join the ARP planning team in response to this discussion.
Donna Estrich, Commissioner of Administration, Finance, Policy and Urban Affairs, presented the first quarter gap/variance in the approved city budget for fiscal year 2022. This includes the budgets for the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Public Schools, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, and the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. Overall, the City is projecting a positive year-end for fiscal year 2022. Of note, sales tax receipts are significantly higher than budgeted ($4.12 million from the same period last year). There were also decreases in personnel expenditures (approximately $1.5 million lower than budgeted, due to vacancies).
Commissioner Estrich shared that Buffalo will not have an in-rem auction in the current fiscal year 2022, an initiative projected to bring in $3.75 million in revenues. The City of Buffalo is currently discussing when to hold the in-rem auction. It might take place in October 2022, but due to many moratoriums related to COVID, the City might push the in-rem auction to spring or fall 2023.
Councilmember Wyatt asked Commissioner Estrich about the level of overtime for police and fire departments. Commissioner Estrich shared that it is higher than last year, but her office is still working on the projected increase. Wyatt said he would keep asking about overtime expenditures moving forward, highlighting what a big expense it is.
The Common Council approved an amended agreement with the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Water Board, and the Buffalo Municipal Water Finance Authority to bond about $13 million for several new capital improvement projects for the city’s water system. This will include recommended clear wall optimization at the filter plan, pumping station repairs, and tank maintenance and improvements.
Council President Pridgen introduced a resolution to request the prioritization of purchasing electric vehicles when the city upgrades its vehicles—requiring an explanation when the City of Buffalo chooses not to buy electric cars. During the discussion, Commissioner Estrich shared that there are some cases when the cost constraints with electric vehicles are prohibitive. Additionally, some heavier vehicles—like plows—don't charge well and are not practical. The City is putting together a cost-benefit analysis on purchasing electric vehicles. There was also a discussion about the fact that Buffalo's electric vehicle charging technology in city parking garages is outdated. The Council adopted this resolution.
The Common Council held a brief meeting of the Committee of the Whole to discuss the possibility of reallocating $4 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds toward road maintenance and repairs across the city. Initially, the City of Buffalo thought that road repairs would not be an allowable expense for ARP funds. However, it now seems possible to include this kind of expense under "revenue loss replacement," one of the seven approved categories for ARP funds. Negotiations between the Common Council and the administration are currently underway, as this reallocation of funds toward road repair would require lessening the approved allocations for other ARP-funded projects. The Committee of the Whole will need to meet again to vote on this plan, but there is no official date.
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