Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of May 3, 2021

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of May 3, 2021

Date: May 7, 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 six meetings. For this summary, we will focus on three: the Legislation Committee, the Claims Committee, and the Committee of the Whole Meeting. The Legislation Committee addresses local laws, ordinances, and general legislation, except for civil service matters. The Claims Committee concerns all matters relating to claims and liability against the City of Buffalo. Common Council also held a Committee of the Whole Meeting to discuss Mayor Brown's 2021-2022 Recommended Budget.

During the Legislation Meeting, the Council discussed the School Zone Speed Camera Program at length. This time, the Council focused on comparing statistics from those in support and against keeping the program. Councilmember Wingo read out a Board of Education Letter that discussed numerous crashes and recorded speeding incidents near schools. Wingo also stated he believes the cameras are working, and drivers are slowing down.

Councilmember Wyatt responded to Councilmember Wingo with statistics stating that Buffalo's low-income/high-poverty zip codes have the highest rates of unpaid tickets. He added more than 20% of speed camera citations went to the five zip codes with the lowest median household income, and nearly 30% of citations went to communities with poverty rates above 30%. Wyatt stated over 60% of citations went to neighborhoods where more than half of the population are people of color – citing that the City had to cancel over 50,000 erroneous citations based on improper notice to residents, not including those canceled for other reasons. Councilmember Wyatt believes those are the primary reason Common Council voted to remove the speed cameras and look to install more equitable traffic enforcement and calming measures.

Council President Pridgen stated that he hopes the Council and Mayor Brown's administration can create a solution. However, the mayor's 2021-2022 Recommended Budget did not provide a budget for the speed cameras this year. Councilmember Feroleto signaled that he would send any further discussion about the speed cameras to the Education Committee.

The Council further discussed an internal disagreement about whether the City Charter authorizes the Common Council to approve an ordinance amendment by a two-thirds vote without a public hearing and the mayor's signature. The Council President cited the original charter and conversations with former council presidents as evidence that the Common Council can approve the ordinance amendment. The Corporation Counsel cites previous actions by the current council and a different reading of the charter as evidence that the Council does not have the authorization to approve the ordinance amendment. Common Council asked the Corporation Counsel to resolve the disagreement, which may involve a judge, but the ordinance amendment stands as of the time of the meeting. 

Common Council shifted to discussing a letter from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) suggesting Mayor Brown does more on police reform. Councilmember Wyatt agreed with the OAG in numerous ways but primarily with its call for the City to create a civilian police review board. Wyatt said a single police officer cost the City $4.5 million for failing to follow police protocol, has had three other incidents costing the city money in civil claims, and is still on the police force. Councilmember Wyatt also stated that multiple internal affairs investigations found no issue with that same officer.

Councilmember Wyatt hopes Corporation Counsel comes forth soon with a plan to create a civilian review board. The mayor said in the media that he disagrees with the civilian review board put forth by Councilmember Wyatt. However, after the OAG letter, Mayor Brown stated he is open to the idea of a civilian review board. Wyatt agrees with the OAG that Buffalo needs more public input on its police reform agenda, comparing the City of Buffalo to Albany, which held 65 public meetings. Councilmember Wingo said he wants the Council to have more conversations with the Police Benevolent Association, the union for the Buffalo Police Department.

During the short Claims Meeting, Common Council discussed issues in executive session because of personal information of residents and legal ramifications. However, after the executive session, the Claims Committee had a small Q&A session with the City's primary lawyer, the Corporation Counsel. Common Council asked Corporation Counsel about limited liability insurance for police officers. Corporation Counsel Tim Ball explained how a city might require any person who wants to work as a police officer to pay for limited liability insurance.

The limited liability insurance would allow people to bring civil suits against police officers directly. It would be the first resort for instances where the police act outside of the goals and objectives of the police department. If insurance providers refuse to cover an officer, they will not work as a police officer. The insurance company would base each officer's premium payment on risk, so officers with long rap sheets would pay more. Councilmember Wyatt asked this question, but the Council did not follow up with further queries, nor did the Common Council discuss making this the law in Buffalo.

The Council held a five-hour, Committee of the Whole Meeting to discuss the Mayor's 2021-2022 Recommended Budget (The Budget). Find the entire 393-page document here: https://www.buffalony.gov/1375/2021-22-Recommended-Budget. The meeting began with opening remarks from Donna Estrich, Commissioner of Administration, Finance, Policy & Urban Affairs Donna. Estrich's comments were over ten minutes long and highlighted an increase in the budget due to higher personnel costs. She also noted Buffalo changed employee living wage to $15.84, lowered residential property rates by 1.09%, and increased the commercial property rate by 2.73%.

Commissioner Estrich, who is not an elected official but an appointed official, also stated that she and her staff would refuse to address budgeting around the speed zone cameras. Specifically, she noted that the Common Council is "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" and does not reflect "the mayor's commitment to making streets safer." Council President Pridgen, who chaired the meeting, stated that he wasn't sure Commissioner Estrich had the authority to keep people from refusing to address questions asked by the Council as he hoped it would not come to that. 

Councilmember Rivera asked specific questions about the police budget regarding fixed costs and contractual obligations. Commissioner Estrich gave examples of fixed costs, including expenses the City is legally obligated to pay – such as police salary, police equipment, computers, and equipment maintenance costs. She clarified that 30% of the police budget is fixed costs that the Common Council does not have the power to change during this budget session and will provide exact numbers in next week's workshop. Estrich agreed with the Council that the police budget decreased by about $750,000, or an 0.86% reduction overall. The commissioner stated that the City assigned surplus police budget funds to the Human Resources to fund new programs, including "The LEAD program and the Bias Training."

Commissioner Estrich mentioned that the police vehicle budget increased "a bit" without stating the number. On page 179, line "474200 Vehicles" of the budget denotes an increase of the police vehicle budget by $650,000 from the Adopted 2020-2021 Budget. Page 182 shows a $26,000 increase in police fleet maintenance, totaling over $452,000 on vehicles alone.  Estrich does admit that the pension benefits – which are a fixed cost – went up by $8 million for the police and fire department combined. Page 331, line 17303002 shows find that city retirement contributions went up over $6 million. On line 17301001 and 17301002, group insurance and insurance fringe benefits went up over $3 million. The commissioner did not know off-hand how much fringe benefits changed since the previous fiscal year. You can find that information on page 37, line 2 (TOTAL FRINGE BENEFITS), which shows an $8.2 million increase.

The Buffalo Police Department estimates 15,000 arrests during the 2021-2022 fiscal year – 2,323 more than 2019-2020 according to page 176 of the budget – even though it expects to begin the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which redirects low-level offenders to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution. The Fire Department added 4.4% to the budget from the previous year. The fire commissioner stated the department had to provide 29,200 hours of overtime for city firefighters to cover COVID-19 related administrative leave and had to halt mandatory summer training for over 40 firefighters, which took them out of service.

The Department of Public Works increased its budget by 4.4%. Commissioner Finn noted two additional street sweepers and an additional $225,000 dedicated to city crosswalk striping as reasons for the increase. However, he also stated this is not enough to provide striping to all the nearly 100 Buffalo Public Schools. Council President Pridgen spoke about wanting to restore a position that would be more responsible for the street quality of life, such as tracking the repair of street cuts and potholes. Finn stated he did not fill two related posts yet but seeks to fill those positions this year.

The Department of Human Services spoke about the approval of the NEOGOV applicant tracking and reporting program, which will cost the City of Buffalo $329,000 over five years. The Department of Law spoke about creating positions to help property owners and landlords monitor lead abatement and inspect lead paint in homes as part of their "Get the Lead Out" Program. The Department of Law also stated its needs two new lawyers due to the high workload during the pandemic. The Corporation Counsel said a Common Council lawyer would be responsible for drafting initial legislation for the Common Council to discuss with Corporation Counsel, making the Council more efficient with an in-house lawyer. The lawyer would also answer the Council's duties and powers if the body asked. The Corporation Counsel stated that Corporation Counsel is only required to give its candid and honest opinion on the duties and powers of the Council if asked by the Common Council.

The Office of Strategic Planning stated there is a high chance it will push In Rem Auctions from October 2021 to Spring 2022 to allow residents affected by the pandemic to have more time to collect funding. Council President Pridgen said the Council has a pending resolution supporting pushing back the auctions.

The Department of Permit and Inspections spoke about proactive rental inspections of Buffalo's 21,000-plus non-owner-occupied single and double units.  The Department of Permit and Inspections state these inspections are not intended to be "gotcha" inspections but intend to focus primarily on lead. They will also look at smoke detectors, exiting features, and CO2 sensors, among other things. The Department of Permits and Inspections will do the inspections over six years and will do a public outreach and information campaign on the new inspection program. Restarting his commentary about potholes, Council President Pridgen stated he hopes to create a reminder program and future permit denial process for incomplete repair of street cuts.

In other updates, the Parking Commissioner stated that the decrease in parking revenue is primarily due to less driving during the pandemic. The Buffalo Firefighter's Union said it would like to do training at its academy rather than the New York State training academy because it is inadequate. Training at the city academy also saves the city overtime funding. The union rep stated that the City of Buffalo needs to promote more active staff and hire new staff to reduce overtime. The Buffalo Police Union President was mainly unresponsive to the questions asked by Councilmember Wingo. The union president also stated that the union would intend to enter arbitration with the City.

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.