Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of July 12, 2021

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of July 12, 2021

Date: July 19, 2021

By Orlando Dickson |

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 seven meetings. For this summary, we will focus on four meetings: the Legislation Committee, Finance Committee, Police Oversight Committee, and a Special Finance Meeting to discuss American Rescue Plan funding coming to Buffalo. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Legislation Meeting addresses local laws, ordinances, and general legislation, except for civil service matters. The Police Oversight meeting concerns all issues dealing with the Buffalo Police Department.

During the Finance Meeting, the Common Council heard public comments on spending the dollars from the American Rescue Plan funding coming to Buffalo. Our executive director, Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, presented the importance of water affordability in Buffalo. Andrea stated that thousands of people are in water debt at the start of the pandemic, and hundreds of families have been completely without water. Andrea noted that working and non-working residents are going out to buy gallons of water during the pandemic. PPG requested and received data from Buffalo Water that shows from 2015 to the beginning of 2019, there were over 17,000 instances of water shutoffs. In 2019 alone, more than 8,500 attempted water shutoffs occurred, with 62% of those being in occupied properties. The highest number of water shutoffs happened in the 14215 zip code at 530 occupied households the same year. The highest rate of shutoffs occurred in 14208 –185 shutoffs total and 44.3 shutoffs per 1000 households, 2.5 times the city average. There were also high rates of shutoffs in 14215 and parts of Buffalo's west side. The least affected Common Council districts were Delaware, Ellicott, and the South District.

After advocacy during the pandemic, Buffalo Water restored water service to customers. Considering emergency COVID restrictions end soon, customers may face shutoffs again, so the importance of water debt forgiveness and affordability remains crucial to stress, especially when you have circumstances where renters have their water shut off because a landlord failed to pay the water bill (and the renter has no recourse).

Common Council President Pridgen and Councilmember Wyatt stated that they would vote against paying off the water bills of landlords who accepted rent and did not use the rent income to pay off their water bills. Donna Estrich, Commissioner of Administration, Finance, Policy & Urban Affairs, noted that the water debt amnesty program would be income-based.

The Council held a Special Finance Meeting to hear community ideas on spending the $331 million in American Rescue Plan Funding (ARP) it will receive from the federal government. Councilmember Wyatt began the meeting by listing the federal government's allowable uses for the ARP, including reducing crime, grants for small businesses, paving potholes, landscaping for parks, removing lead water pipes, and new broadband infrastructure. Council President Pridgen asserted the Common Council must approve all uses for the ARP funding and that the mayor does not have authority to use ARP funding unilaterally. At the time of the meeting, the only Common Council-approved use for ARP funding was a $550,000 disbursement for Mayor Brown's Summer Youth Program and a smaller amount for Buffalo Fire Equipment. Councilmember Rivera was having some audio issues but described that the Federal Treasury Department would audit the spending of the ARP. Councilmember Nowakowski wants to improve broadband access in the Fillmore District and home repair and weatherization.

Andrea spoke again, continuing from the previous financial meeting by stating two primary ways of addressing the basic needs of city residents affected by COVID and living in poverty: increasing household incomes and reducing household expenses. Referencing ARP federal guidelines, she noted that Buffalo has the authority to provide direct assistance to individuals and families. Andrea also recommended funding greening vacant lots, community food growing, supporting frontline arts, water affordability, and healthy housing for ARP investment.

Our very own Just Recovery Coordinator Tanvier Peart also made suggestions on behalf of PPG. Tanvier suggested funding programs that ensure police only respond to arrestable offenses like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Tanvier also asked the Common Council to invest in crime prevention that addresses root causes – lack of affordable housing, livable wages, and direct payments to marginalized residents – instead of reacting to symptoms that do not improve long-term public safety or reduce recidivism rates.

Multiple Buffalo residents and organizations also provided their suggestions on what to do with the funding. Here are some of the recommendations:

  • Create a cash for cans program
  • Invest in the Water Debt Amnesty Program
  • Create a fund for frontline arts organizations and artists
  • Invest in the Buffalo Central Terminal
  • Help workers get jobs with family-sustaining wages
  • Replace lead lines
  • Bolster proactive housing inspections to defeat lead poisoning
  • Continue to keep the ARP funding process open and participatory
  • Permanently conserve and fund community gardens and create a community land trust
  • Ensure that whatever the ARP funding is used for, that the people using it are not engaging in wage theft and are committed to providing workforce training
  • Fix Seneca and Main Street potholes
  • Increase Summer Youth Jobs
  • Assist small businesses with programs like Shop 716.
  • Set up a system to monitor out-of-state and out-of-country landlords

Council President Pridgen questioned if the mayor’s summer youth program should become an all-year program. He also stated that ARP funds should be used to transform the face of Buffalo, not just for gifts. Pridgen does not want the funds to be gone in two years without a long-term effect on life in Buffalo. 

During the Legislation Meeting, the Council heard comments from Corporation Counsel Tim Ball on a change in the fee structure that the City instituted in July 2014, where it doubled the permit fee for underground and digging work on city-owned land and property. As a result, national Fuel sued the City of Buffalo, stating the fee structure was unreasonable. The City settled by allowing an ordinance amendment that allows National Fuel and other similarly positioned companies to maintain certain fees related to current contracts. However, they will have to pay new fees for new projects.

Councilmember Wyatt wrote a letter to Parking Commissioner Helfer to clarify confusion about ending the School Zone Speed Zone Camera Program, which disallowed the cameras to issue tickets on June 15, 2021. Wyatt stated that people were still receiving tickets. Councilmembers Wyatt and Rivera said they want the cameras taken down sooner rather than later, noting the Council's difficulties in getting answers from the administration. Commissioner Helfer did not show up to the meeting.

Council President Pridgen spoke about the Right to Know Law and the Common Council's final changes before the law goes before the full Council. By law, Pridgen stated the District Attorney does not have the authority to charge officers who do not comply. Officers who do not adhere to the law will face discipline through normal disciplinary processes. Law enforcement must also give children a stop receipt during any level two interaction when a police officer asks questions that would reasonably lead the person to believe that they are suspected of a crime. A police officer may request a search but may not pursue or detain the person at the level two stage. The Council expects to approve the law on July 20, 2021.

During the Police Oversight Meeting, Common Council and Buffalo Police Department (BPD) heard testimony from the Buffalo Police Advisory Board (PAB) concerning the threat of white supremacy infiltrating the department. Members of the Buffalo community expressed their concern about white supremacists infiltrating BPD. The PAB responded by researching white supremacy in police departments, presenting the research to the Common Council, and asking the community's questions. 

During my presentation, I spoke about how residents want a better reporting mechanism for asserting incidents of white supremacist behavior perpetrated by police, explaining several incidents of white supremacy in policing all over the nation. First, I noted evidence of white supremacists living both in and near the city of Buffalo. Then, I explained to the Council and BPD that the department lacks diversity and provided proof that lack of diversity in police departments leads to increased violence in inter-racial police interactions. I also stated that Buffalo has only improved two spots in the last 20 years from the fourth most segregated city in America to the sixth most segregated city. I addressed implicit bias, how it works and laid out a simple plan for identifying and making efforts to eradicate implicit bias within BPD. 

Finally, I ended my comments stating solutions to addressing white supremacy in police departments. A few highlights of those suggestions are:

  • Create a civilian review board with significant powers
  • Mandate consistent bias training
  • Fire police who exhibit supremacist attitudes.

BPD Commissioner Lockwood stated that applicants go through psychological screening and a background investigation. He also noted that internal affairs (IA) will investigate any complaint of white supremacist behavior in the department and will report the investigation to the FBI. The Commissioner stated specifically that when IA suggests an officer is a white supremacist, he will move to terminate the officer immediately. BPD Deputy Commissioner Barbara Lark also detailed BPD's extensive campaign to recruit diverse candidates to the department.

To quell the recent uptick of crime in Buffalo, Commissioner Lockwood committed to having University at Buffalo sports coaches speak to large groups of inner-city youth. He also stated he would work with some yet-to-be-named agencies to provide services to homeless youth.

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