Special Common Council Summary: Week of May 9, 2022

Special Common Council Summary: Week of May 9, 2022

Date: May 13, 2022

By Anna Blatto|

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 marked the start of the City of Buffalo's annual budget process. Each year, the mayor releases a recommended budget. The budget then goes to the Common Council, which hosts a series of meetings, including a public hearing where members of the public can weigh in on the budget—and workshops with individual city departments. While all meetings are open to the public and streamed on the Common Council's Facebook page, residents can only speak during the public budget hearing. 

This year, the Common Council published "A Citizen's Guide to Understanding the City Budget." The document outlines the budget process, explains where to locate budget items, and breaks down how to read and understand the city budget.

How Is the Recommended Budget Created?

Before February, departments submit a proposed budget to the mayor. On or before May 1, the mayor submits a budget to the Common Council for the upcoming fiscal year, including a summary of expenditures and revenue. The Comptroller's Office reviews the budget and provides input by May 10. 

The Common Council can then approve the budget as-is or make modifications, such as striking or reducing budget items or adding items of appropriation to supplement existing budget items. 

The Council makes a final decision on the budget by May 22, including any changes they would like to make to the recommended budget. The budget then goes back to the mayor, who approves or vetoes the final version. If the mayor rejects the budget, the Common Council can vote again; if they have a supermajority, the budget passes. If the finalized budget isn't adopted before June 8, the mayor's recommended budget becomes the final budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

This Year's Hearings

This year's budget hearings began on May 9, with the public hearing at 5 p.m. on May 10. Departmental budget workshops start on Monday, May 16. 

Recap from the May 10 Public Budget Hearing

For the first time, the City of Buffalo hosted a hybrid meeting, during which residents could comment both in person in the Council Chambers and via Zoom. The Council also streamed the meeting on its Facebook page.  

The meeting featured 35 speakers from the community. The majority of speakers are residents of the City of Buffalo. Many mentioned their roles within the community and involvement in local organizations as influencing factors in their testimonies.

Note: Although we tried our best to spell all speaker names correctly, we apologize for misspelled names as there is no published list.

Of the speakers, no one supported passing the current recommended budget as-is. Most expressed with great passion a dissatisfaction with the current budget. While residents spoke on a variety of topics to express their concerns, there were common themes among those commenting: 

  • Police budget - 60% (21) of speakers feel concerned about the increase in the police budget and how much of the overall budget invests in police ;
  • Shotspotter technology investment - 57% (20) of speakers expressed concern about potential new investment in Shotspotter technology for the Buffalo Police Department;
  • Increase in taxes/garbage user fee - 14% (5) of speakers expressed frustration with the proposed property tax and garbage user fee increases; and
  • Executive salary increases - 9% (3) of speakers were concerned about executive salary increases 

The police budget and potential investment in "Shotspotter" technology were the most heavily discussed oppositions to the current recommended budget. Many speakers—including Anthony O'Rourke, Nathan Feist, Brian Oberland, and Miles Gresham—cited studies and research from across the country demonstrating that Shotspotter can be ineffective and dangerous, particularly in overpoliced communities of color. Others such as Ari Chapli, Joselle Diebold, and Harper Bishop expressed worry about increased surveillance, especially in communities with poor police-community relations and who do not see police as public safety allies. A common concern among all speakers was a hefty initial—and then ongoing—investment into a technology that has proven to be unsuccessful and, in many cases, predatory. 

The opposition to Shotspotter was part of a larger opposition to the police budget. Speakers shared frustration around increasing crime—specifically gun violence—and the status quo of not only dedicating nearly a third of general budget funds to police but increasing the police budget. Those in opposition commonly cite that police are not the most effective way to ensure public safety. They state that crime has not been mitigated while the budget has increased repeatedly for additional officers, vehicles, and technologies. They shared that resources can be invested more effectively to address the root cause of crime and pointed out that no other city departments are seeing budget increases at the rate that the police department has and is. 

Brian Lauer rejected giving the police more money until BPD proves it can be better public safety allies and noted that people are unwilling to help the police because they are scared of the police. Odessa Hunter told personal experiences with police on Buffalo's East Side, sharing that when the police come, law enforcement treats them differently, which can lead to trauma and brutality. Many residents, including Kate Nowaldy, reflected on high response times to 911 calls, particularly in certain districts, and that past investments did very little to lower the police response time. 

Aside from the police budget, several residents expressed disappointment in the proposed 4.5% property tax increase and the proposed increase to the city's garbage user fee. Most residents in opposition have similar perspectives on the pandemic putting strain on residents and agree that now is not the right time to increase property taxes further. Tony Alonga reviewed various increases in taxes and fees during Mayor Brown's terms and shared his distrust in the mayor. Brown rejected a proposed 3% property tax increase by his opponent in the mayoral election this past fall. Alonga also wondered how revenue from COVID relief funding and taxes from expensive newly built properties contribute to the overall budget. Sam Herbert understands the need for increased revenue but rejected such a high property tax increase in one year, specifically in the wake of the pandemic. Instead, he proposed a 1.5-1.8% tax increase to allow the city some increased revenue but reduce the burden on taxpayers. 

Several speakers communicated concern over increases in executive salaries. Heather Gring noted an increase in funds to pay for high-paying salaries and slush funds. Harper Bishop stated additional funding for new, executive-level positions with six-figure salaries seems to be "duplicative, confusing, and unnecessary." Bishop described concern over the lack of transparency and no available information or descriptions on what benefits the new roles will be bringing. Bishop shared the result as furthering distrust in local government. Simon Chabel echoed this and stated the Council must reject massive raises and requests for funding for additional high-salary jobs.

Speakers also presented solutions and alternatives for how they believe Buffalo should spend budget money. A majority of speakers—63% (22)—shared that investment directly in the community is the solution to many issues the City looks to address by increasing the police budget. Commonly mentioned are an investment in affordable housing, public education, mental health services, effective employment programs, healthy food options, improved public transit, and in Buffalo's youth through programming. 

Former mayoral candidate India Walton shared the story of someone sitting behind her in the meeting, who runs a program serving over 300 families teaching city youth how to swim. Walton stated, "I would rather be putting money toward that than into failed technology, failed policing policy and practices." Cariol Horne, a former Buffalo police officer and local advocate, emphasized a need for better youth programming. She wants to create a "respite place" for youth to allow them a space to focus on their mental health and distance them from the justice system, which she views as a "revolving door." Renato Graham, a resident and Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) Commissioner, highlighted requests from BMHA tenants to develop programs and services brought directly to them. Graham stated, "they have a lot of barriers with childcare, transportation, different things … so they need services brought to them where they live to help overcome their barriers."  

Forty percent (14) of speakers brought up infrastructure improvements—including investment in public works such as snow removal—to improve the built environment, reduce crime, and create more desirable and safer communities. Miles Carter, representing Jami Mosque on Genesee Street on Buffalo's East Side, shared difficulties getting responses to 311 requests for fixing crosswalk lights and paving streets. He noted requests are ongoing, many for over five years, with little to no resolution thus far. He suggested improvements to streets, crosswalks, and sidewalks. Carter added beautification efforts such as installing garbage cans that are easy to empty and investment in parks specifically on the East Side should be priorities. 

Heather Gring stated, "we need better city infrastructure, safer bike lanes, safer sidewalks, better snow removal, potholes to be filled …" Several speakers recommended municipal sidewalk removal have an allocation in the budget. Jennifer Orr expressed frustration around inadequate plowing throughout this past winter. She posed the question," If our neighbors in Rochester figured out a program to clean up sidewalks, then where is our issue?" Bridge Rauch encouraged the Department of Public Works "to spend some of the new capital investment funds on equipment for sidewalk for snow plowing and maintenance of our commercial corridors along the sidewalks, especially in those with bus services." 

In addition, speakers recommended that the City of Buffalo rethink tax increases and be more considerate about tax and user fee increases and where the funding is going. Two speakers encouraged the removal of police from standard traffic enforcement. 

Some speakers made other recommendations and requests:

  • Joseph Allen, resident, homeowner, and lifelong Buffalo resident, suggested investing in empty churches on Buffalo's East Side and turning them into hands-on learning centers for the city's youth. He encouraged direct partnership with the Buffalo Board of Education, having exercise spaces that can generate electricity, implementing a Cash for Cans program so youth can learn how to run a business, and having game rooms. He also suggested the centers can double as safe spaces for families. 
  • Cas Rodriguez discussed Buffalo's Latinx community and requested additional investment in the Niagara Street Corridor on the Lower West Side. Rodriguez mentioned the proposed Hispanic Heritage Cultural Institute and shared that $11 million out of the $12.5 million needed for the project has been raised with the help of state legislators. He thanked the Common Council for the investments already made in the project and hoped for support in the budget for the additional $1.5 million needed to finalize the project's budget. 

All spoken comments and submitted written comments, and documents Buffalo residents submited become part of the public record. Councilmember David Rivera concluded the meeting by reminding viewers and attendees of the next steps in the budget negotiation and finalization process. 

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