|Date:||November 12, 2021|
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, including a Finance Committee Special Session to serve as a public hearing on the location of the new Bills stadium. For this summary, we will focus on three committee meetings: the Community Development Committee, the Legislation Committee, and Finance Committee. The Community Development Committee focuses on matters pertaining to work or improvement using revenue from another government unit. The Legislation Committee focuses on local laws, ordinances, and general legislation—except for civil service matters. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds.
During the Community Development Committee meeting, the Council heard a presentation from Connor Kenney, SAA/EVI Project Manager for the Pilgrim Village Housing Project, which will break ground in early 2022 on Michigan Avenue near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Pilgrim Village Senior for ages 55 and up will have 105 units, and Pilgrim Village Family will have 132 units. Lawrence Rubin, attorney for Kavinoky Cook LLP, said that this project is historic because it assures a "deep level of affordability" and is "the largest affordable housing project undertaken in the City of Buffalo under the low-income housing tax federal program." Council President Pridgen pointed out that the affordability of Pilgrim Village will make it possible for residents to stay in their neighborhood.
Andy Raab, Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Parks & Recreation, told Common Council that children who live in the City of Buffalo wouldn't have to walk more than 10 minutes to a playground anymore. He said that the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Public Schools are joining together to make school playgrounds accessible when school is not in session. This means guaranteed public hours for school playgrounds, with clear and posted signage outlining the protocol for community use. School maintenance staff who work during evening hours will open, clean, and close playgrounds.
According to Deputy Commissioner Raab, the plan to open school playgrounds is "ready to go," but sharing school basketball courts, larger fields, and maybe even pools involves more planning. Councilmember Bollman spoke in support of partnerships between schools and parks. Councilmember Rivera called this effort "a great utilization of public assets" that keeps kids "safe and out of trouble." In addition, Council President Pridgen praised this effort and pointed out that many neighborhoods don't have community centers within walking distance.
Mike Finn, Commissioner of Public Works, Parks and Streets, announced that the City of Buffalo is preparing for winter and his department is ready to fight the snow. He said that newly-installed speed humps will not be a problem with the plows and that temporary road markings on the humps will be more visible and reflective. Councilmember Golombek inquired about using electric vehicles in the Public Works Department, but Commissioner Finn responded that the technology is unavailable, especially with larger vehicles. During a snow event, plows need to be in use around the clock. There is no time for the fleet to charge for four to five hours in the middle of the storm.
Under a new management plan, the Broadway Market will get a new board of directors comprising six to 10 individuals. Kathleen Peterson, Market Manager and Food Enterprise Coordinator in the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning and Manager of the Broadway Market, told the Council that the new board would manage the market, hire employees, and fundraise. She also said that ideally, the board would have a retailer, lawyer, health inspector, tenant representative, and community members.
Lisa Hicks, Director of Development for the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning, assured the Council that new board members would have a high level of professional experience and expertise in specific areas "in order to advance the mission" of the Broadway Market. Peterson also described the urgent need to hire an interior designer who has experience in public market venues, purchase equipment like ventless hoods, and begin an advertising campaign. Councilmember Nowakowski urged the public to come to visit the Broadway Market throughout the year, stating, "the best days are yet to come."
During the Legislation Committee meeting, a church located at 926 West Avenue on the west side of Buffalo will receive the mark of a historical landmark. The Preservation Board met with Councilmember Rivera and constituents, and the community is in agreement—including Rich Products, a company located in the area.
The property owner of 485 Michigan Avenue is requesting to have the building become a liquor store. The owner's attorney spoke on his behalf, stating he would like to use this building beneficially. However, the community spoke in great opposition due to the proximity to a church and its impact on the culture of the east side.
The east side is currently working with local cultural communities to redevelop and revitalize the community. Many members representing the African American and LGBTQIA+ community came out to speak about the property's historical significance. This was one of the only bars in the 1950s that served lesbian members. Replacing this bar with a liquor store will take away the history and the significance for the African-American, LGBTQIA+, and the jazz communities.
The primary agenda items discussed in this week's Finance Committee meeting included the September 2021 cash flow report, the process for disbursing in-rem 53 surplus funds to the former owners of foreclosed properties sold at auction, and the special public hearing regarding the possibility of placing the Bills Stadium in the City of Buffalo.
Cash Flow Report
Deputy Comptroller Delano Dowell, Sr., provided a summary of the cash flow activity for the city as of September 2021:
Deputy Comptroller Dowell emphasized that Buffalo's primary revenue sources are taxes, state aid, and sales tax. The above-listed service charges and receipts are not a central source of revenues. However, he did acknowledge that the receipts were lower than last year. Dowell also shared that the City has significant upcoming cash disbursements in December, including:
Finally, Deputy Comptroller Dowell shared that Buffalo will receive a $19,166,000 state aid payment in December.
Donna Estrich, Commissioner of Administration and Finance, emphasized that the sales tax revenues are $5 million higher than last year in September. There have been some savings in the pension payments. Overall, the City's finances this year are positive.
In Rem 53 Auction Surplus Funds
The central topic of discussion during the Finance Committee meeting was the process for contacting individuals with foreclosed homes who are entitled to the surplus funds from the sale of their former properties at auction. Surplus funds refer to the sale price of foreclosed properties at auction, minus the taxes and fees owed to the City of Buffalo and other utilities. The surplus funds from the 2019 in-rem 53 auction total $3.6 million. There are currently only three pending claims for surplus funds.
Jason Shell, the Commissioner of Assessment and Taxation, clarified for the Finance Committee that the posted list of properties on the City Law Department's website that generated surplus revenues at the 2019 auction was part of the "soft launch" of a new process for contacting former property owners. Commissioner Shell acknowledged that the Law Department had staffing issues through COVID-19 that delayed the process of reaching the former property owners. However, a formal mailing will soon contact all property owners about the surplus funds they are entitled to claim. The website also has links to the required claim forms and instructions on filing the required claims.
Councilmembers voiced concern that the current addresses listed in the City's database are likely inaccurate. There needs to be a robust process for proactively identifying and contacting eligible former property owners entitled to the surplus funds. Councilmember Wyatt asked for the names of the people who owned the listed properties so his office could start doing some of the legwork of contacting them.
Historically, unclaimed funds would be transferred to and eventually absorbed by New York State after a certain period. However, beginning in 2019, Buffalo's Assessment and Taxation Department and Legal Department negotiated a new process for disbursing funds with the WNY Law Center. While Commissioner Shell did not have the full details of the new approach, its purpose is to keep the entire process local. The new process defines the criteria for being considered a homeowner, investor—or lienholder—and describes the procedures and timelines for claiming the surplus funds.
Commissioner Shell shared that the time claimants have to file for the surplus funds depends on their status. Former homeowners have five years to claim the funds, investors have two years, and lien holders have 120 days. He was unsure of the starting date for that eligibility timeline. The Finance Committee requested that a representative from the Legal Department come to the next Finance Committee meeting to clarify the specifics of the new negotiated process.
Councilmember Rivera emphasized how heavily concentrated the homes are on the east side of Buffalo and how important it is to make a concerted effort to contact former property owners proactively. He asked for more information about how the City works to reach the former owners and asked for data on how many/what kinds of attempts it makes to contact former owners. He suggested that the Common Council should track this information.
Councilmember Wingo asked for clarification of how the City of Buffalo notifies property owners of foreclosures. Commissioner Shell said there are notifications over a 10-month process, including three "courtesy" warnings and two legal notices. The foreclosure process begins in December each year, and the auction is in October of the following year. In the interim, the City pursues payment plan arrangements with property owners.
Because this is the first year of the new negotiated process with the WNY Law Center, there is no aggregate data on the process. Moving forward, data will be tracked over time and reported to the Common Council. Commissioner Shell will send documentation of the negotiated processes to the Common Council. Councilmember Bollman suggested setting up a meeting with Commissioner Shell, his office, and Partnership for the Public Good to talk about increasing the number of foreclosure auction purchases by people who intend to be owner-occupants.
Bills in Buffalo
Councilmember Wyatt announced the special Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday 11/9 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the potential impacts of building the Bills stadium in Buffalo. Specifically, the councilmember named that a 20-30 year lease in the city could bring in an additional $21 million in revenues for Buffalo. The public hearing is designed to be an opportunity to get presentations on fiscal analyses and take public comment.
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