|Date:||March 17, 2023|
By Rose Thomas, 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 four 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.
Common Council discussed concerns about the upcoming In-Rem auction during the Legislation Committee. Council President Pridgen asked Corporation Counsel if the Council must approve the auction process. Council Member Wyatt wanted to know where the funds are after a news report the City spent it. Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers referenced Article §28 of the City Charter to explain why the Council does not need to take action for the City to foreclose on a property. The Commissioner of Taxation and Corporation Counsel have vested powers to commence legal actions. She recommended Council enter an executive session for further details about processes, admitting there's no determined process for the upcoming In-Rem auction.
However, Chambers explained she could share conversations she's had with other departments, advising what the process could look like—including reviewing existing law, proposed law, and further pending legal proceedings that could impact the Council.
"I want to be clear to the Corporation Counsel: it is to the process. If the community and the taxpayers do not know which process we're going to use—and it's still in process, it's still in conversation—I don't know why we're even having In-Rem lists yet," Council President Pridgen told Corporation Counsel. Pridgen believes how the City goes forth auctioning people's houses is a public conversation, not one for an executive session. Corporation Counsel Chambers asserted the Council President misunderstands as there hasn't been a decision that impacts the public she can share. Council President Pridgen wants to be clear he is "vehemently against" doing the planned In-Rerm auction using the previous process. He also highlighted Counsel's mention that Common Council is not at the decision-making table to influence the initiative.
"We rely on Counsel to give us good information, and for us to sit here and now say we can't give this money back because of the gift of public funds is an embarrassment. We take people's property, they don't get their money back...what is going on here?" Council Member Wyatt questioned. "We shouldn't have In-Rem if we haven't figured out the process...we've been asking for something in writing."
During the Civil Service Committee, Gladys Herndon-Hill, Commissioner of Human Resources, gave a brief overview of what the Department of Human Resources is currently doing. The department is looking to fill vacancies amidst the anticipated retirements. They have administered the entry-level firefighter and police examination and released a new applicant tracking system called NeoGov. NeoGov is an applicant tracking software to make the application process more transparent for job seekers to see where they stand. The Division of Personnel continues to provide resources to the City of Buffalo's workforce, such as health detection, prevention programs, and several pieces of training. Council Member Wyatt opposes appointing a new member of the Buffalo Water Board until the issues with the fluoride lawsuit have been resolved. The Council called forth a representative of the Buffalo Water Board to join future meetings to resolve any questions. Until then, the Council decided to table this agenda.
The retirees requesting backpay returned to the Council to continue their push to receive payments for the work they completed in years past. The retiree said the Finance Committee needed to shift money around. Council Member Riveria said they could expect it to be made whole by the end of February or March. However, the retirees discovered the Council tabled the agenda items. Council Member Nowakowski reiterated that the Council supported this issue, but a retiree interjected in the hope of receiving direct answers from the commissioner.
In the Finance Committee, the City's investment debt officer explained that Buffalo's finances are currently on track. The sales tax and intergovernmental funds are coming in higher than expected. The council members also discussed the City's waste and recycling costs. These costs are higher than the amount from residents' user fees. Therefore, the administration wants to increase the user fee in the upcoming budget.
There was a short discussion about a dispute between the City and former city workers claiming owned back pay. A representative said that the administration would meet with the union (Local 264) to discuss the issue next week.
Council Members on the Community Development Committee passed the rental inspection program to hold landlords accountable by providing healthy homes to tenants. This focused on lead infestations, mold, and flooding, among other areas that can deem a home unhealthy. Commissioner Amdur, who spoke on behalf of this issue, asked the Council to offer ticketed offenses to landlords unresponsive to her team's notices as they cannot enforce this on them. Council Member Nowakowski explained why this was important, as the highest lead poisoning rates are in the Niagara District and the Broadway Filmore area. He continued to state that he has seen homes in deplorable conditions while driving down the streets and hopes to see a mechanism that remediates these problems and other issues that can deem a home unsafe.
Council Members Rivera and Nowakoswki are looking to advance these ticketed items forward. Council Member Wyatt added that landlords should be coming into compliance with the notices—not just paying a small fine—and stated how landlords are buying out homes in Buffalo to take advantage. After, Council Member Wingo added that poor tenants should also be held accountable for refusing landlord rent payments.
Joe Kurtz, Vice President of the Food Policy Council, spoke on behalf of his team about the local food action plan. The plan prioritizes five key areas, but specifically, public land is accessible to the public. With supporting the Public Land for Public Benefit campaign led by Grassroots Gardens, among other organizations, Kurtz states that access to the land is essential for food systems to use for local food production for urban farms and gardens.
A long-time resident from Elmwood Village spoke before the Council about concerns that he and his neighbors had about the apartment building on 579 Elmwood Avenue. It has about thirty code violations, with nine active since 2017. To Council Member Rivera's understanding, there were about 100 reports made against this property, which the State Supreme Court foreclosed on earlier this year. The residents seek a positive transition for this property through a partnership with the City. The resident stated that several residents have moved because of this building or even avoided the street where the apartment is because it's unsafe to pass by. People have identified and attempted to contact the owner with no success and made several 311 calls about the safety of the building. Commissioner Amdur of the Department of Permit and Inspection Services sympathized with the resident's concerns but stated that the City's inspectors have been through that building several times are are looking to move residents out.
Council Member Golembek stated that his resolution for the "Gas Stove Ban" was to bring state representatives to the meetings and be able to address the questions and concerns that residents have. However, with the busier schedules, state representatives have had difficulties coming to Council Chambers. The National Grid Regional Director attended this meeting. He stated that they are committed to a fair and clean, affordable energy transition, noting no network yet exists to handle the expected increase in electrical demand.
Climate advocates favor reducing the state's carbon footprint to invest in more sustainable alternatives and minimize extreme weather events, reiterating that Governor Hochul's proposal is to phase out gas and oil-powered furnaces in newly constructed buildings. This will not affect existing heating equipment for homeowners and businesses. Furthermore, New York State's Climate Action Council ("CAC") laid a clear path for a just transition. The electrification of newly constructed builds will create jobs and yield lower energy bills than fossil fuel buildings.
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