Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of January 16, 2023

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of January 16, 2023

Date: January 20, 2023

By Colleen Kristich, 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 five meetings. The Legislation Committee focuses on local laws, ordinances, and general legislation—except for civil matters. 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. The Education Committee focuses on issues regarding teachers, schools, school property, training, and the Board of Education.

During the Legislation Committee, Nathan Feist, a Buffalo resident, uplifted the Urban Think Tank's letter of support ("LOS") for criminal justice reform and the Minority Bar Association of WNY ("MBAWNY")'s Criminal Justice Reform Task Force recommendations for the City of Buffalo ("the City"). In August 2020, the task force suggested immediate implementation of the following:

  • Codify into local law a requirement for police officers to wear and activate body cameras when interacting with the public;
  • Cut court overtime pay;
  • Establish a "meaningful" independent civilian oversight board; and
  • Make police disciplinary hearings public

The remaining recommendations are available to view on pages 55-61 here.

Since the Urban Think Tank wrote the LOS in September 2020, Common Council has tabled the item, voting to continue the three-year practice during this Legislation Committee meeting.

In the Civil Service Committee, Council Member Scanlon discussed a resolution to create an emergency management coordinator position. This would be a centralized figure to coordinate emergency efforts and response. He explained that departments often don't communicate well in these situations, and this person could bridge the gap and coordinate the response from different levels of government (e.g., city, county, state). Outside of emergencies, this person could create and conduct trainings for employees. In the past, the City has had a dedicated person in this position. Council Member Scanlon had talked to long-time police and fire employees who claimed that things worked much more smoothly in emergencies when this position existed. 

Other council members in the meeting agreed to create this position. Council Member Wyatt expressed anger that the mayor might disagree with this idea. However, Council Member Nowakowski reminded the Council that they had five members in the room already on board with the idea. 

A Buffalo resident also came to speak about the lack of outpatient medical services for folks with ostomies. Ostomies are surgically-made openings outside the body that connect to a kidney, small intestine, or large intestine. Residents of the region with ostomies must travel to Rochester to get care. Since Erie County is responsible for health-related issues in the area, the council members forwarded this concern to the County's Health Equity Taskforce.

In the Finance Committee, Council Member Wyatt expressed disappointment that no one from the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority ("BFSA") appeared to discuss questions and concerns about the City of Buffalo's finances. He also revealed frustration that the American Rescue Plan Act ("ARPA") funding is moving slower than anticipated into the community.

An accountant from the Comptroller's Office shared that the office puts out a Popular Annual Financial Report that summarizes the City's budget for the general public. It's a relatively straightforward report meant for everyday people to understand.

Council members discussed the possibility of creating two new city positions—a fleet manager and an emergency coordinator—to prepare for future storms. Some council members would like to see both jobs created. Others only want the emergency coordinator position since fleet managers exist within the Department of Public Works, the Fire Department, and the Police Department. The next step is for the council members to talk with the mayor to discuss these positions. Council President Pridgen stressed that the Council must take action and create the role before the next big snowstorm.

The City had a clean audit for the fiscal year 2021-2022. Moving forward, the auditor urged the City to strategize how to balance the budget once there is no more ARPA funding.

The auditor also flagged that the City's solid waste and recycling fund is running on a deficit. After the last increase in user fees (in 2019), the fund ran at a surplus for a few years, which allowed it to start paying off its $19 million loan to the general fund. However, in 2022, it reran a deficit. This means that the council members should consider reducing costs or increasing the user fee again.

In the Community Development Committee, Council Member Wyatt expressed frustration that two of his residents had difficulty purchasing vacant lots from the City. He explained that the process isn't clear to everyday residents. Wyatt would like to see vacant lots sold to people who maintain them since the City can't deal with all of its lots. Howard Grynspan, the Director of Real Estate for the City of Buffalo, said he'd be willing to work with the resident they were discussing to help move him through the purchase process.

Council Member Rivera is seeking a meeting with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer to ask for federal aid for damages from the blizzard. Rivera stated he's been hearing from residents whose homes have storm damage not covered by insurance and need help paying for repairs.

There was a lengthy discussion about the preparedness of the City of Buffalo Fire Department ("BFD") in the December blizzard. Commissioner William Renaldo, BFD Commissioner, said that the dept prepared well under the circumstances. Council members pointed out that the firehouses lacked ample food, cots, and other supplies for the firefighters and people who sought shelter at the firehouses. The commissioner agreed and said that the department would better prepare from now on.

According to the City's charter, the BFD commissioner is also the City's emergency management coordinator. Council Member Scanlon expressed concerns that he'd heard from folks in the police and fire staff who said that the directives from the departments throughout the storm were unclear.

Vinny Ventresca, President of the Buffalo Firefighters (Local 282) Union, stated that the department's existing equipment needs updating. The council members said they supported additional equipment purchases.

There was disagreement about calls firefighters responded to during the storm. Commissioner Renaldo said BFD continued going to calls. "At no time did we not respond to any incident," he claimed. He explained that BFD sent fewer equipment/vehicles to each call since many of them got stuck. However, the union president disagreed with this. He said that the firefighters stopped going to calls unless there were active fires.

Most of the Education Committee meeting centered around transportation issues at Buffalo Public Schools ("BPS"). Speakers included representatives from the District Parent Coordinating Council, the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, the Buffalo Equity and Education Taskforce, and individuals. One perspective is that some students miss up to an hour of instruction each day and miss modified sports because of transportation problems such as buses not arriving or arriving late. 

Speakers stressed that this is an equity issue because these students are the poorest and most vulnerable to falling behind, especially after the pandemic. They stated that it is a racial and economic justice issue because the only schools that have neighborhood or sibling preference policies—which make them easier to walk to or for parents to drop kids off—are the "elite" schools (Olmstead, North Park, and Discovery in Lovejoy) located in majority-white neighborhoods. As a result, many students who must catch early morning buses (6 a.m.), come home late in the evening (7 p.m.), or spend an hour a day on the bus, are Black and brown students. 

Previously, the Council passed a resolution in favor of a three-bell schedule to alleviate the busing issue. The opposing perspective offered at this meeting was that parents did not support this three-bell solution because changing the start and end times of the school day would force parents—especially working and single parents—to find additional childcare or miss work. For example, if a household had one child start school at 9:30 a.m. and another child finishes the school day at 2:30 p.m., that would only leave the parent with 5 hours of work time.

Additionally, if schools ended at different times, it would be harder to have modified sports because schools would not be able to play against each other if one school day ended at 2:30 p.m. and another at 4:30 p.m. Another point presented from this perspective was that the transportation problems are less widespread than is being represented. One speaker said that according to BPS COO David Hills, in December, less than 0.2% of students were on buses delayed in the morning and 1.3% in the afternoon. 

Besides the arguments above, the discussion got heated due to accusations from one side or the other about which perspective most parents support union and charter school issues and whether the Council should be weighing in or leaving it to the Board of Education. Council members voiced their commitment to finding solutions to this issue and to hearing from more parents of BPS students. The committee voted to table the item.

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.asp