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Deaf Ears in the Chambers

Does NFTA chairman Kim Minkel ride the Metro to work from her home in Lancaster?

It’s about 1:50pm on Tuesday afternoon when the NFTA entourage walks calmly into the chambers of Buffalo’s Common Council, led by executive director Kim Minkel and chairman Henry Sloma. They stand at the top, virtually silent, like the new kids at school. The chambers are sparsely filled, maybe 20 people, five of whom are media. Another five are from the neighboring Occupy Buffalo camp.

At 2:05pm, Councilwoman Bonnie Russell slams the gavel down and begins the hearing by rattling off agenda items like an auctioneer. She covers a few items off the top of a lengthy agenda at breakneck speed, hears from a woman hoping to open a sewing supply shop on Franklin Street, then skips ahead from item three on the PowerPoint projection to item 17: “Proposed NFTA Cutbacks in Services.” I notice that Minkel, Sloma, and NFTA spokesman Douglas Hartmeyer, to my right, have occupied the section of the chamber defined by four pillars that read: Knowledge, Industry, Fortitude, Philosophy. Russell thanks the NFTA officials for attending despite their busy schedules and then opens the floor for public comment.

Councilmen Darius Pridgen, Mickey Kearns, and Michael LoCurto are absent, and Demone Smith arrives late. David Rivera spends some quality time with his smartphone, while Joe Golombek carries on a muted but jovial sidebar with Dave Franczyk through the entire hearing.

The second speaker, Samuel Herbert, utters a sentiment on the minds of manys: He feels the NFTA has threatened service cuts in order to make fare hikes a preferred reality. “Do each of you receive a salary?” he asks. “If there’s discussion about fare hikes, discussion about cutting lines, I want to know if [NFTA management] will take the lead in cutting their own salaries. I would say this on behalf of the riders in Buffalo: I personally feel this has been a serious scam organized by the NFTA that we would cut the routes if we don’t see a fare increase.”

Russell opens the floor to the NFTA and Sloma is passed a microphone. “We did not know this would be a public hearing,” he says. “We thought we would hear from Common Council.” He invites all in attendance to one of the hearings scheduled this week and defends a potential fare hike: “We were asked by many community leaders and a member of this Council, ‘Please, please, please, don’t raise fares, find an alternative.’ So we looked at an alternative. As the governor of this great state, Mario Cuomo, has said, ‘We need to make cuts, we need to make a sacrifice.’ This is the sacrifice.”

Sloma does not reply to the multiple requests that NFTA officials trim their own salaries. After several further speakers held the floor, Sloma rises and says that they must excuse themselves, as they have to goset up for a 6pm public hearing that evening in Niagara Falls. It’s 2:47pm.

Before they leave, however, Russell opens the floor to members of the Common Council. Of those on the floor, only Rich Fontana chooses to make a statement, saying his constituents have expressed a preference for a fare increase over any cuts in service. Russell asks the NFTA officials about safety concerns her constituents have now that the NFTA police force has been trimmed. Minkel replies that the agency is focusing on borrowing police from the airport to maintain a strong presence during the afternoon commute when schools let out.

When they’re gone, John Washington of Occupy Buffalo takes the microphone: “I’m very sorry that they did leave so soon, because I did want to address some cuts that could be made to make the NFTA more efficient.” Washington refers freely to the superb op-ed by Kevin Gaughan recently printed in the Buffalo News. “It’s my feeling right now that the NFTA is a private investment company in the disguise of a public transportation authority,” Washington says. “They have a property management department that manages the NFTA’s [holdings on] the waterfront that [pays] around $700,000 in salaries for eight employees. They also have 115 support service managers that make a combined $11.4 million dollars in salaries per year. Right there, that seems like enough money to fund proper bus routes.”

He continues: “Two words come to mind when I think about the way the NFTA has handled [things]: extortion and gentrification. Right now we are being threatened with our livelihoods. They have threatened our ability to get to work, sustain our lives, and feed our families. And for that, they are going to offer a rate increase. Now I believe they never had any intention of making cuts to the service. But the easiest way to increase fares is to make people think they are going to take away their ability to feed their families. These public hearings are a facade. As you can see, I don’t think they really care what we have to say.”

The hearing is adjourned at 3:05pm as Russell slams the gavel again. In the elevator afterwards, members of Occupy Buffalo sneer at how Golombek and Francyzk chatted with each other through the entire hearing. “They don’t care,” someone says. “Even the ones who seem cool, they don’t care about you. They just care if they can get some use out of you.”

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