Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of February 27, 2023

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of February 27, 2023

Date: March 7, 2023

By Rose Thomas and Sarah Wooton |

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 four meetings. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Civil Service Committee addresses matters relating to human resources, civil services, and personnel. The Community Development Committee focuses on issues about work or improvement using revenue from another government unit. 

In the Finance Committee, Council Member Golombek discussed using a Land Value Tax ("LVT") model in Buffalo. Right now, owners pay taxes based on how much the entire property is worth, including the structure of the land. Under LVT, you only tax the ground the structure sits on. For example, taxation would be similar on like-sized pieces of land on the same street—whether a small ranch, a mansion, or no structure.

Anthony Flint, Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and Nick Allen, Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to speak about the LVT concept. Flint explained that taxing land instead of structures can encourage development and discourage land speculation. Current practices may disincentivize people to build on vacant land because it will increase their taxes. Instead, many people would rather sit on the land and wait for it to increase in value so they can sell it later. With LVT, sitting on the land would be more expensive, and it wouldn't impact your taxes to build on it.     

Some municipalities in Pennsylvania have used LVT, with Connecticut also enabling cities to launch pilot programs. Overall, LVT implementation in municipalities remains challenging.

Allen talked about a study he conducted on the potential impacts of doing LVT in Detroit, Michigan. He found that LVT should decrease taxes for 96% of homeowners and almost all small landlords and reduce tax foreclosures by 22%. Council Member Golombek supports more research at this initiative for Buffalo. However, New York State would need to pass legislation to allow it.

The council members also discussed the possibility of a vacancy tax, a different kind of tax that would only impact owners of vacant lots and vacant buildings. For example, San Francisco and New York City have vacancy taxes. Council Member Rivera said he favors a vacancy registry and taxing those owners.

Delano Dowell, Commissioner of Administration, Finance, Policy, and Urban Affairs, stated the City of Buffalo ("the City") needs to move $200,000 to take care of demolitions. There is already $500,000 pending for demolitions, but the department that handles demolitions needs $200,000 sooner. The council members asked for information on how many demolitions this would result in and where they would be.

In the Civil Service Committee, Council Member Nowakowski mentioned Commissioner Dowell stated on record that the administration is working through the backpay for retirees after the contract has been re-negotiated and left several with missing pay. Nowakowski requests a timetable of when the administration can resolve the issue and how to proceed. Pete Gospodarski wrote a letter to the Finance Committee requesting back pay about three weeks ago. However, he attended the Civil Service Committee this week to express his concerns further. Roughly 76 workers were "forced" to work as essential employees. However, they still need to receive back pay for their services. Gospodarksi expressed that workers, including himself, have yet to be recognized by the mayor and are seeking a resolution. Council Member Nowakowski reassured Gospodarski that the Council is supporting this matter. Council Member Wyatt stated there should be a timely response in the next budget cycle to pay these workers. 

During the Community Development Committee, Council Member Golembek urged National Grid, National Fuel, and state legislators to address Buffalo residents' concerns over the proposed gas stove ban. Golombek also stated while the Council acknowledges the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the ban on gas stoves could be an "unnecessary outreach." Another concern Council Member Golombek expressed was whether the electric grid would work properly and handle inclement weather.

Buffalo residents spoke out against Council adopting a resolution questioning the gas stove ban—and another to "pause" implementation of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act ("CLCPA") signed into law in 2019—as it contained misleading information. Many community members clarified that the governor proposes to phase out gas connections for newer buildings, not existing ones. Activists have also stated that fossil fuel industries have circulated this misinformation to stir public fear to move toward profit-driven motives. While the Council has previously supported emission reduction goals, residents feel the body is undermining the more significant issue of climate change with this resolution. One even mentioned that we can't stabilize our climate if gas heating is still prevalent in 2050.

One resident stated that the Council is responsible for researching and understanding the laws to inform the public rather than the other way around. Components of the gas stove ban resolution referenced the December blizzard and how gas stoves are "reliable" in keeping people warm. However, community members countered this narrative, reiterating how dangerous gas stoves are because of the amount of carbon and nitrogen monoxide emissions.

Speakers who testified added that the blizzard resulted from the climate crisis, signaling governments' need to take swifter action. Additionally, people mentioned reasons to switch to electric builds as it is more energy efficient and electric stoves can perform identically if not better than gas stoves. 

There is a need to move past outdated systems. Speakers in opposition to Council's resolutions noted the concerns of disadvantaged communities. The CLCPA has a mechanism to provide clean energy funding to these communities. Lastly, residents urged the Council to continue seeking out the voices of those most affected by climate change and those well-versed in this area of expertise. 

Council Member Wyatt put forth a resolution in support of an eviction moratorium, specifically in 14215. He is still looking for more details on evictions, as some residents stated that landlords increased their rent, leading to forced evictions. He would like Governor Hochul to provide more resources for people evicted and expressed concerns for tenants—and "mom and pop" landlords—who need help.

A property manager joined the committee to speak on behalf of landlord perspectives regarding eviction moratoriums. She stated that residents stopped paying their rent for subsidized housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) only gave them enough money to pay the mortgage but not enough to upkeep the property. The property manager believes tenants made the "choice" not to pay due to the courts being overwhelmed by eviction notices and hoped that the Council would rescind their support of the eviction moratorium. 

An Ellicott District resident thanked the Council for supporting the eviction moratorium, as neighborhoods in 14215 have been most affected. Council President Pridgen hopes this agenda can advance to the Affordable Housing Task Force. While Pridgen acknowledges landlords' concerns and "feels for them" trying to recoup unpaid rent, he also believes landlords take advantage of extreme rent increases after evicting previous tenants. Council Member Wyatt also spoke about preventing an increase in the homeless population.

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