Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of January 3, 2022

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of January 3, 2022

Date: January 7, 2022

By Becca Bass, Elizabeth Quinlan & Johnny Qiu|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 six meetings. For this summary, we will focus on the Legislation Committee, Community Development Committee, a biannual Reorganizational Meeting, and Finance Committee Meeting. The Legislation Committee focuses on local laws, ordinances, and general legislation—except for civil matters. 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.

Common Council tabled many agenda items during the Legislation Committee meeting. The only item discussed was 1100 Niagara Street, a property recommended to become a landmark. The Preservation Board was not present to speak on this, but Councilmember Rivera was curious to question the owner, who was also not present. The owner recently put this building up for sale and wanted to know the plans since the building and the property are currently in disrepair and need maintenance.

During the Community Development, Councilmembers approved a request from Michael Headley, a private developer, to enter into a designated developer agreement with the City of Buffalo. Headley plans to construct a 1,000 square feet parking structure on Bailey Avenue for community meetings and celebratory functions. The meeting was brief and adjourned after just four minutes of discussion.

At the biannual Reorganizational Meeting, the Common Council unanimously reappointed Darius Pridgen as Council President and David Rivera as Majority Leader. The Council appointed Christopher Scanlon as President Pro-Tempore. Judge Betty Calvo-Torres swore all three into their positions.

Common Council nominated Tianna M. Marks and Pamela Maggiore for City Clerk, with Marks earning votes for the position. The Council nominated and unanimously appointed Maggiore as Deputy City Clerk, and Milly Castro Littles as Deputy City Clerk of Vital Statistics.

The Council adopted the appointment of Councilmembers Pridgen, Golombek, and Nowakowski as Council Representatives on the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. The Council adopted appointments of City Clerk staff, including four legislative aides, four assistant legislative aides, three legislative assistants, and one legislative assistant to the City Clerk.

The Council adopted the appointment of the Common Council Legislative staff, including James Montour as Chief of Staff and two senior legislative assistants. In addition, Common Council appointed two senior legislative assistants and a legislative assistant to Council, a legislative aide, an assistant legislative aide to the Council President, and a press information officer. Common Council also adopted the appointment of legislative assistants within the offices of each councilmember.

The Council adopted the regular committee appointments as follows:

Claims Committee:

  • Chair: Wingo
  • Members: Feroleto, Scanlon, Wyatt

Civil Service Committee

  • Chair: Nowakowski
  • Members: Bollman, Rivera, Wyatt

Community Development Committee:

  • Chair: Golombek
  • Members: Feroleto, Rivera, Scanlon, Wyatt

Finance Committee:

  • Chair: Wyatt
  • Members: Bollman, Nowakowski, Rivera, Wingo

Legislation Committee:

  • Chair: FeroletoMembers: Golombek, Nowakowski, Rivera, Scanlon

Education Committee:

  • Chair: Bollman
  • Members: Nowakowski, Wyatt

Rules Committee:

  • Chair: Pridgen
  • Members: Rivera, Scanlon

The Council adopted the special committee appointments as follows:

Budget Committee:

  • Chair: Rivera
  • Members: Golombek, Scanlon, Wyatt

Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) Committee:

  • Chair: Wyatt
  • Members: Golombek, Rivera, Wingo

Police Oversight Committee:

  • Chair: Rivera
  • Members: Wyatt, Scanlon, Feroleto

Preservation Committee:

  • Chair: Golombek
  • Members: Nowakowski, Feroleto

Transportation Committee:

  • Chair: Scanlon
  • Members: Bollman, Feroleto, Rivera

Waterfront Development Committee:

  • Chair: Scanlon
  • Members: Nowakowski, Golombek, Wingo 

The Council adopted the appointment of the following as marriage officers: Bryan Bollman; Joel Feroleto; Mitchell Nowakowski; David Rivera; Christopher Scanlon; Ulysees O. Wingo, Sr.; Rasheed N. C. Wyatt; Tianna M. Marks; Milly Castro Littles; and Pamela Maggiore.

Council President Pridgen thanked the Council for its vote of confidence and acknowledged the unique challenges of the past few years. Pridgen also mentioned that the Council would be redistricting in the coming year. Council Majority Leader Rivera closed the meeting by reflecting on the challenges of the past years and highlighting the critical role of government in responding to the needs of the people. He emphasized the importance of the American Rescue Plan funding, settling with the Seneca Nation, the federal infrastructure bill funding impacting the Council's work in the year ahead, and affirmed the Council's intention to work together in coordination with the administration through 2022.

The primary topics of discussion at the Finance Committee were the Comptroller's and the Administration's first-quarter gap reports, the status of the Tribal Compact settlement, the potential forgiveness of late fees and fines on city user fees, and the extension of the city's contract with BeWell.

The Comptroller's Office and the City both produce independent quarterly reports that reflect the difference between actual and budgeted expenditures and revenues to date, and that project the city's anticipated budget position at the end of the fiscal year. The Comptroller's first quarter gap report projects a $24.4 million surplus at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2022, while the administration projects an $8 million surplus. This discrepancy is uncommonly large and is partly attributed to the fact that the projections are only based on three months of actual data. The Comptroller's Office and administration representatives suggest that the second quarter gap report should be more accurate.  Overall, the Comptroller’s report estimates significantly lower expenses than the City Administration’s report (~$29.7 million lower in personnel and fringe), and the City Administration’s report estimates higher revenues than the Comptroller’s report (primarily because it includes the $11 million in anticipated revenues from the Tribal Compact). 

There was some discussion of the status of the Tribal Compact with the Seneca Nation. The administration maintains that the Seneca Nation owes it approximately $47 million in gaming revenues—about $8-11 million per year—since it stopped making payments in 2017 after the disputed expiration of a gaming compact agreement. A judge recently ruled against the Seneca Nation, but it is unclear whether there are additional possible legal appeals. Finance Committee Chair Wyatt requested a briefing on the case status from the City's Law Department. 

The Finance Committee spoke at length about the possibility of forgiving fees and penalties on city residents' user fees. Most committee members expressed concern that compounding fees trap people in cycles of debt and that this is an increasing problem in the face of COVID. Jessica Brown, Director of Administration and Finance, shared again that the City of Buffalo is currently in contract negotiations with a vendor to work with residents who have past due water bills. The City of Buffalo is defining the eligibility requirements and application process for residents to apply for debt forgiveness. 

The City is still working on determining how far back fee forgiveness will go—whether it will forgive debts accumulated only during COVID-19 or include prior debts (and whether it will forgive just fees or also bills). A priority for Buffalo is providing enough aid to prevent foreclosures. Thirteen million of the American Rescue Plan funds have been set aside for this purpose. Once this program rolls out, the plan is to use it as a model for a new user fee debt forgiveness program. The City currently has $5.5 million set aside for this user fee debt program, which should launch in spring 2022. 

Committee members asked for more information about whether they have the authority to waive fees for residents or whether they would need to pass legislation to forgive fees. Deputy Legal Counsel Karen Gordon was uncertain of the extent of the authority of the Common Council in this matter and will look into it. However, she does not believe the Council has direct jurisdiction over these fees. Committee members also asked Jessica Brown for more information on the total amount of outstanding fees and debts to the city and whether or not there was a spike in debts after the COVID-19 pandemic. Some committee members expressed concern that the $13 million for water debt forgiveness and the $5.5 million set aside for user fee debt forgiveness will be inadequate to meet the level of need. 

Finally, the Finance Committee approved a six-month contract extension for BeWell through June 30, 2022, while the City evaluates proposals from the most recent RFP process. BeWell provides medical case management for police officers and firefighters injured on duty. Finance Committee Chair Wyatt requested data on the number of people served per year under the current contract, which is $375,000 per year.

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