Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of October 24, 2022

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of October 24, 2022

Date: October 28, 2022

By Colleen Kristich, 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 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. The Legislation Committee focuses on local laws, ordinances, and general legislation—except for civil matters.

The bulk of the Civil Service Committee was a confirmation hearing for Nathan Martin, the new Commissioner of Public Works, Parks, and Streets. Although he is new to government, Martin's background is in engineering and operations at Medaille College. The Department of Public Works ("DPW") is responsible for snowplowing, recycling and waste management, street infrastructure, and more. 

There is a snow plan due to the Council on November 1, which is in its final stages. GPS for snowplows is part of the implementation plan, allowing residents to see where the plows are in real-time and track the efficiency of the plows. The program will also have contingencies for heavy snowfall to avoid last year's problems, such as having designated places to put excess snow. 

Council members asked questions regarding the capacity of DPW to fulfill all its obligations and requests for service, the importance of the department being open, communicative, transparent and accessible, and how to ensure projects finish on time. Council Member Rivera referenced DPW's challenges with promptly completing "low-hanging fruit" initiatives, such as stop sign installations. In addition, he stressed the importance of holding contractors accountable to specific timelines.

Council Member Wyatt pressed Commissioner Martin on if he understood the specific challenges of the role and asked for a summary of his understanding for the record to make clear he understands Council's priorities. Council Member Bollman stressed that residents blame the Common Council for the lack of action and the importance of the department working quickly to meet requests.

Council President Pridgen asked about Commissioner Martin's leadership style, highlighting the importance of being open, available, and having "boots on the ground." Council Member Wingo stated that there had been times when council members needed to be made aware of big projects happening in their districts and wanted better communication and collaboration.

Council Member Rivera stated the difficulties around speed humps that are dividing neighborhoods. Some have 50% support, which makes it challenging to take action. He also expressed concern about bumpouts on Forest Avenue and block clubs' pushback. However, Council Member Rivera is in full support of stripping. He also inquired about project managers overseeing implementation and wants them brought back.

One concern about DPW is that the department is not completing a simple application to accept state funding. In comparison, the Town of Hamburg has received millions from the state for parks. Council Member Rivera stated that in the past, DPW has not bothered to obtain state or federal funds because then the City of Buffalo would have to "take care of [the park]," which he feels is not a valid excuse for passing up money.

A point of contention arose at the end of the meeting when Council Member Wyatt returned to his request for a written summary of what Commissioner Martin heard. Martin was reluctant to commit to this because his supervisor is the mayor, but after discussion, he did agree to submit this summary. Common Council approved his confirmation.

In the Community Development Committee, a Buffalo resident asked the council members to support federal initiatives HR6600 and S3199, which would promote peace and democracy in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The resident explained that the Tigrayan people are facing drone attacks, weaponized hunger and rape, and other crimes against humanity. Between 383,000 and 600,000 Tigrayan civilians have died in the last two years. "By definition, this is a genocide on the levels of Biafra and Rwanda," he said. Council Member Golombek said that Council staff would work with the resident to move this item forward.

Once again, residents from the University District expressed concerns about the Hopewell Opioid Clinic in the Cleve-Hill Plaza. Council Member Wyatt then asked a DPW representative about the possibility of a traffic study on this area to understand the clinic's impact on the community. The DPW representative explained that the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council ("GBNRTC") is already conducting a traffic study that includes this intersection and will try to get these traffic study results as soon as possible.

The council members also spoke with Mark Meyerhofer, a Spectrum representative, about the possibility of moving the government access channel to a lower channel number—likely 19, 20, or 21. This would make it more accessible to people with cheaper cable packages. Meyerhofer explained that Spectrum wants a cable franchise agreement with the City of Buffalo ("the City") in exchange for this switch. He said he is working with Mayor Brown's team to negotiate this franchise agreement, including a "community benefits agreement" or CBA. [Note: At PPG, we promote the widely-held view that to negotiate a CBA, discussions must include representatives from the impacted community and be transparent to the public. This is not the case here.] Benefits of the CBA may consist of upgrades to the Apollo Media Center.

Sue Lumadue oversees housing grants for the City and spoke about approving Community Development Block Grant ("CDBG") contracts during the Finance Committee. She requested to extend contracts through Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS ("HOPWA") grants for Harvest House and Evergreen Health. Some agencies were cut this year (HEAL International, WEDI) by $20,000 each because of a decrease in HUD funding—and because these were newer contracts and at least one of the organizations could not fulfill the paperwork obligations of the grants. Councilmember Wyatt asked to see the final report of outcomes from these grants. HUD funding through Emergency Solutions Grants ("ESG")—for people experiencing homelessness—also received an extension.

Nick Heidinger, Director of Personnel, also spoke about a contract for pre-employment drug screening for the City, which is higher this year due to increased hiring for Buffalo Police and Fire. Council Member Rivera asked if cannabis in the person's system would disqualify them from a job. The answer was yes because it is a DOT standard for positions requiring driving a city-owned vehicle. 

Council Member Rivera pointed out the dissonance in the state's standards for decriminalizing cannabis but enforcing this bar on employment. Council Member Wingo asked Assistant Corporation Counsel Carin Gordon if the City could go around this. She responded no because it is a state standard. Council Member Wyatt requested Heidinger send a letter to the New York State on the matter to increase the pool of applicants and to mitigate the impact on Black and brown applicants. Rivera expressed concern that someone turned away because cannabis—legal in New York—could sue the City. The Council asked Corporation Counsel and Human Resources to follow up on what the City can do to opt-out of this requirement for employment. The committee approved the contract, and the requested follow-up letter go to the Civil Service Committee. 

Much of the Legislation Committee included numerous testimonies during a public hearing on a zoning amendment for a new brewpub. Council Member Rivera reiterated for the developer to meet with Tremont community members to address concerns and sent the item without recommendation to the full Common Council.

Fidèle Menavanza, Chief Compliance Officer at Jericho Road, spoke on the special use permit application for an emergency shelter to better assist asylum seekers. Menavanza hopes Jericho Road will obtain the permit to expand its efforts and provide at least 120 beds. Council President Pridgen noted some block clubs in the area expressed concerns, though he hasn't heard any new objections recently and would follow up. The committee sent the item to the full Council without recommendation.

Christiana Limniatis, Director of Preservation Services at Preservation Buffalo Niagara, spoke to the Legislation Committee about designating 1443 Clinton Street—known as the Clinton-Bailey Farmers & Flea Market—as a local landmark. The market serves as a resource to "meet the increased need for access to affordable food and goods directly from regional farmers" and remains "a critical food hub on the East Side." Limniatis noted over 30 people emailed their support to Council Members Feroleto and Nowakowski. She also spoke to the owner's structural concerns about the building and listed financial opportunities to save it. Former Common Council Member Dave Franczyk shared his support to designate the building as a local landmark and shared his experiences interacting with neighbors and communities who rely on its fresh food.

Paul Desiderio, a produce merchant with a stand at the market, described the layout of the two-story building  as "obsolete"—with outhouses—and "not functional for today's standards." Desiderio believes things will stay at a standstill if there is no action to develop a plan and supports maintaining the open market but not the building. Sharon Baldi, Clinton-Bailey Farmers & Flea Market Manager, testified against making the building a local landmark. She doesn't believe the original building design considered farmers and noted challenges, such as bathrooms outside the physical structure, a difficult stairwell to navigate, and customers unable to utilize the entire building due to liabilities. In addition, she asserts the building could be more efficient and spent $62,000 to render a new site for the market. Baldi recommends demolishing the existing building to rebuild and estimates a new structure would cost much less than trying to bring the current property up to date.

Council Member Nowakowski, who put forth the resolution to designate the market as a local landmark, spoke passionately about the issue. He noted previous meetings earlier in the year to discuss the building and believes only some are operating in good faith. He referenced a conversation between himself and Sharon Baldi, alleging she alluded to asking him to promise she'll receive money to complete the necessary repairs. 

"That's extortion, Mr. Chair. I'm a government official," Nowakowski stated. "If grants are available, you have to apply for the grant and let it go through the process." The council member pointed out he is unsure if the building could be an adaptive reuse because the co-op never attempted to do it "since owning [the building] for 100 years." The legislator added he would only put forth a building for landmark designation if there were resources available to restore it. The committee sent the item to the full Council without recommendation.

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