|Date:||September 20, 2021|
By Elizabeth Quinlan & Becca Bass |
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 three committee meetings. For this summary, we will focus on the Finance Committee and Community Development Committee Meetings. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Community Development Committee focuses on matters pertaining to work or improvement using revenue from another government unit.
During the Finance Committee Meeting, representatives from the Comptroller's office presented their debt cap estimate for the next five fiscal years — $25 million in 2022; $26 million in 2023; $27 million in 2024; $28 million in 2025; and $28 million in 2026. These numbers refer to the maximum level of borrowing the City of Buffalo can engage in annually for funding capital improvement projects approved by the City's governing bodies.
In response to questions from the Council, Deputy Comptroller Delano D. Dowell, Sr. clarified that these projected annual caps follow the Comptroller's standard (conservative annual calculations) and do not take into account the potential for additional federal infrastructure funding — a measure the U.S. Senate passed that must pass the House. Representatives from the Comptroller's Office clarified that the City does not need to borrow up to the total amount if other funding is available. The cap reflects the maximum amount the City could responsibly borrow annually.
The Comptroller's Office representatives shared that they reviewed the proposed usage of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and agreed they're allowable under the federal guidelines. However, the detailed spending plans for the ARPA funds have not been shared with the office. City Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams requests more information from the Common Council and Mayor's Office to ensure she has the necessary information to uphold her responsibility for monitoring expenditures in compliance with the federal Treasury regulations. Her office also requested clarifications on Buffalo's new fund balance policy, which passed the Common Council on June 8, requiring the City to have 45 days of operating expenses available in the city fund. Finally, the Comptroller's Office shared that Buffalo paid off its $25 million deficiency note six months early, thanks to federal aid, resulting in a cost savings of $153,000.
Commissioner Michael Finn shared an update on Buffalo's recycling services Request for Proposals (RFP) process. The City's selection committee chose the proposal from Modern (the current contractor), and the Finance Committee motioned to send the contract without recommendation to the Common Council for approval. Of particular note, the discussion focused on the possibility of raised user fees for recycling in future fiscal years to address the following:
The cost of recycling collection has increased due to China's new policy of no longer buying recycling from other countries. The U.S. is currently trying to build capacity to process recycling, but the cost implications for the coming years are unclear. The City has budgeted to cover rising costs, and residents will not face any increased user fees for at least this fiscal year. In the longer term, Buffalo will need to evaluate cost-savings strategies, including the possibility of switching to biweekly collection. However, Commissioner Finn assured the Council that weekly service will remain in place through 2022. All other options will be exhausted before increasing fees or reducing the frequency of collection.
According to Susan Attridge, Director of Refuse and Recycling, the estimated contamination rate for Buffalo's household recycling is 21% — meaning that 21% of what's put into recycling bins is not recyclable. Contaminated recycling significantly reduces its value, and the City has been providing warning tags for the contractor to leave on bins. Multiple violations can result in households losing their recycling totes. Attridge emphasized that more education and outreach are required.
The Council then asked Commissioner Finn to address the level of MWBE goal compliance from both Modern, the current recycling contractor and selected bidder for the new contract, and Waste Management, the other RFP bidder and the current operator of the East Side Transfer Station. While Commissioner Finn stated that Modern had demonstrated good faith efforts to meet the 25% MWBE goal despite falling short of the goal, Councilmember Wyatt strongly emphasized the importance of the City holding contractors accountable to meet the MWBE goal as taxpayer funds must be distributed in more equitable ways among local vendors. Ultimately, the City's proposed contract with Modern for recycling collection was sent without recommendation to the full Common Council for approval.
Finally, Donna Estrich, Commissioner of Administration and Finance, submitted a three-year contract proposal for the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency to continue overseeing the Community Development Block Grant and Home Funds programs for the City. Councilmember Wyatt asked if a one-year contract would be preferable given the potential change in mayoral leadership. Commissioner Estrich stated that any city contract has a clause allowing at-will termination at the city's discretion. The contract was sent without recommendation or consideration of a one-year contract to the full Council for approval.
During the Community Development Committee Meeting, the Council discussed the request for a downtown stadium complex. Councilmember Wyatt was the first to comment on this issue. "I want to be a champion for the City of Buffalo," he noted. "Many people want to see the stadium in the City of Buffalo. This is a missed opportunity. It's foolish not to talk about it." Wyatt that Erie County officials should let the public know why the new stadium will be in Orchard Park instead of another location. Whether land or money issues, Councilmember Wyatt wanted to know the barriers to putting the stadium in Buffalo, pointing out that a smaller stadium with 60,000 seats could "change the experience" for fans. He concluded that we need to "hear the will of the people" and talk about the economic impact of each option for a new stadium.
Council President Pridgen agreed with Councilmember Wyatt, stating, "I am a supporter of the Buffalo Bills being in Buffalo." However, he pointed out that when the announcement was made, "the site plan was already drawn up." In this case, Council President Pridgen said that "the train has already left the station."
Since the Bills Franchise will use county and state money, Pridgen argued that there should have been some public input early on. Taxpayers should not be told, "This is where the stadium is, and you all are going to pay for it." He called it "unfortunate" that a councilmember wasn't part of a negotiating team, insisting that "Bills fans and the residents of Buffalo deserve to have input."
Councilmember Rivera agreed with his colleagues, noting, "If we would have been part of the process, then that would have helped." Rivera argued that occurred without public conversation, so "here we are, afterthoughts." He explained that missed opportunity is a "pattern" in Buffalo that must be broken. Councilmember Rivera also argued that the Pegulas took the "easy way out" by planning a new stadium across the street from the existing Bills stadium.
Councilmember Wingo also expressed his disappointment in the new Bills stadium not being in Buffalo, saying, "It would be great to have the stadium due to the economic impact." He also described a public debate he recently attended with the "current administration." There was a discussion about putting the new stadium in the City of Buffalo. However, one person mentioned concerns that a stadium in the city might displace many people and families. Others were worried that a stadium in Buffalo could destroy the waterfront or the nature preserve. Wingo concluded that in private sales, "we can't help if an individual owns the property and who they sell it to."
Council Chair Golombek made the final comment on this issue. "Mr. Wyatt hit the nail on the head – I agree. We are hearing 'innuendo' numbers of $1.1 billion, but there has not been a study done about the exact cost of putting the stadium in the city. We need facts."
During a discussion about prioritizing "Complete Street" Construction on Niagara Street, Councilmember Golombek noted Commissioner Finn promised it will be "a priority project." He explained that no matter what stream of funding the City uses, Phase 5 of the "Complete Street" project on Niagara between Porter and Hampshire Street needs to be finished soon. Golombek and councilmembers agreed to keep tabling the item until the project's completion so that it stays on everyone's radar.
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