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DPW Commissioner answers Buffalo Common Council questions about blizzard response

DPW Commissioner Nate Marton answered a barrage of questions from the common council during Tuesdays community development committee meeting.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Tuesday's community development committee meeting held in the common council chambers at city hall ran a little longer than planned. That's because DPW commissioner Nate Marton appeared before the committee to try and answer questions surrounding the department's response to the 2022 blizzard. 

"This storm did show us a lot," said Masten District councilmember Ulysses O. Wingo during the meeting. "It showed us what we can do better."

Wingo also said he didn't want the meeting to turn into a finger pointing session, but did recognize failures by the city. He also wanted to recognize the bravery of those who went out into the storm. 

"Before we enter in this discussion about the storm, and the inadequacies of Buffalo's equipment, the inadequacies of our snow plan, let's not disrespect the people who had to go out and save the lives and pull folks who had expired into the storm, out of snow piles and out of cars," Wingo said. 

Commissioner Marton began his remarks stating that the department broke the storm down in two phases. 

"First phase was really life safety work that our team in coordination with everybody else was doing," Marton said. "The second part was really the snow clearing, which began in earnest when those calls that we needed to take care of, again, life saving measures were coming down."

South District Councilman Chris Scanlon echoed the concerns he told 2 On Your Side last week. 

"My concern is, again, storms of that magnitude we can't respond on our own," Scanlon said. "But we need to be able to respond to lesser events."

Commissioner Marton revealed to the council that one of the problems the city has had this year is retaining contracted plow drivers. 

One of the big reasons is because the city doesn't pay as well as other municipalities. 

Marton said contractors told the city that "your rates are not high enough, we will not in engage with you for emergency calls like this."

Currently, according to Marton, the city has six contractors available to help the city with snow removal. He did not specify how large of a fleet those contractors had. 

In terms of pay, Marton says when he took over as commissioner he increased the pay for city snow removal contractors. But despite the pay increase, the city lags behind the county and state. 

"We increased our rates by about 25% between November and December, we put that into action on an engaged contractors, that is still 25% below what a state contractor," Marton said. "It's 40% below, roughly,  from what the county could pay."

Council president Darius Pridgen was quite clear about what he wants to see done about the contractor pay issue. 

"We need to raise these rates so that we have every contractor in this region that we can get to respond to the City of Buffalo," Pridgen said. 

University District councilman Rasheed Wyatt called out the DPW for its snow plan, which lacked plans for heavy snows and blizzards. 

"What we do need to do now that we asked last year, is to have a comprehensive plan," Wyatt said. "We had a couple of storms, we had one last year, we'd have one just this year and we haven't really come up with some substance policies and prioritize them in ways to deal with this."

Pridgen also expressed discontent for things he has asked for during a storm. 

"I have asked for 311 or [a] live body to be available, especially during storms and catastrophes," Pridgen sayd. "That was not included, and it has not occurred."

Pridgen said the city needs to prepare the 311 system ahead of the storm in a similar way the department did during the pandemic. 

"It was very difficult for people to communicate with anyone except 911," Pridgen said.  

No decisions about next steps were made during the committee meeting Tuesday, which further frustrated councilman Wyatt. 

"I don't want to wait, again for another storm for us to be sitting at the same position, having the same conversations that we should be having, maybe tomorrow," Wyatt said 

In a separate news conference Tuesday, Mayor Brown said the city will be creating a new position that will be in charge of fleet management for the DPW, fire and police departments. 

"We think having a fleet director is a critically important position," Mayor Brown said. "The fleet director will oversee the fleet operations of the buffalo Fire Department, Buffalo Police Department, and the Department of Public Works for the City of Buffalo, looking at repair cycles, looking at equipment life cycles."

Mayor Brown said that he has submitted a budget to the common council, the salary for the position would range between $110,000-$120,000 per year. 

The common council has a regular meeting scheduled for Jan.10, and the response to the blizzard is slated to be discussed again. 

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