Richard Raines wasn't looking to become a community activist. But a series of car break-ins, burglaries, and muggings that plagued North Buffalo last fall motivated the Wellington Road homeowner to reach out to leaders of several neighborhood organizations and eventually establish the North Buffalo Coalition (NBC).
The Pan American Watch Area, Parkside Community Association, North Buffalo Block Club Association, Voorhees Block Club, Fordham Block Club and the Central Park Homeowners Association comprise the informal coalition and Raines has emerged as its de facto leader. Representatives from these groups, which are located in the 14214 and 14216 zip codes, have been meeting periodically to address hot-button quality of life issues like crime.
A demographic snapshot shows a relatively stable community: According to the US Census, the median family income for residents of 14214 and 14216 is over $42,000 as compared to an overall median of $30,000 for the City of Buffalo. Over 30% of residents in each of the two zip codes has earned a Bachelor's degree or higher as compared with 18% overall for the city. The median value of a home in this area, at $80,000, is 30% higher than that of Buffalo as a whole.
Raines notes that Coalition members recognize there is strength in numbers when trying to "hold city officials to their word, to hold them accountable and in the process get more interactive and transparent governing." The area has almost 18,000 households. The Coalition estimates that about half are receiving e-mail updates and/or printed newsletters from the individual member groups. Its goal is to reach out to every household using the most appropriate media tools and to form an efficient communication network for alerting neighbors to criminal activity and disseminating other important information.
Increasing digital communication as much as possible is key because it gets the word out quickly. Recently, video images of a burglary were forwarded to each group's e-mail list from a Parkside resident. His surveillance camera captured a couple of criminals as they walked up the street with items just stolen from a neighbor's front porch. The homeowner also shared the video with police.
While residential crime remains of primary concern, the group has also been active in and supports the Buffalo Green Code project, a comprehensive rewrite of Buffalo's Zoning Ordinance which will hopefully pave the way toward the city's growth and sustainability. In addition, the Coalition is promoting Aging in Place initiatives that support senior citizens remaining in their homes rather than moving to assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
Raines has developed strong relationships on behalf of the Coalition with elected officials including Delaware Councilman Michael LoCurto and first-time New York State Senator Mark Grisanti, 60th District. While emphasizing that the NBC is not a political organization, Raines points out, "We strive to be apolitical. We get behind an issue, not a candidate."
The NBC has expressed its support for a piece of legislation, S-2353, that Senator Grisanti authored and introduced in the Senate earlier this year shortly after he assumed his new office. It states:
"The purpose of this legislation is to allow the city of Buffalo to adjudicate traffic infractions. New York State currently holds all hearings in Buffalo without the option of a plea bargain system. If the City of Buffalo adjudicates traffic infractions they will implement a system that would allow traffic violators to have an option of a plea bargain, which could lead to traffic school. This system would offer two benefits to Buffalo residents now currently enjoyed by suburban residents; the violator would be allowed to attend traffic school thus hopefully becoming a safer and better driver and also after attending school would not receive any points on his/her license which in turn raises his/her insurance rates. City of Buffalo residents already pay higher insurance rates and this system only causes these rates to increase without any of the options that are offered in the surrounding areas."
If the legislation were to become law, Buffalo would be able to keep all revenue generated from adjudicating these violations just as every other city, town and village in Erie County does. Unfortunately, while the bill passed the Senate, it never made it out of committee in the New York State Assembly. Senator Grisanti has vowed to re-introduce it in the next legislative session.
According to Doug Curella, Chief of Staff for Senator Grisanti, the revenue would go into the city's general fund. The legislation does not include any specific provisions for its use. However, Raines would like to see the funds spent on bolstering manpower and upgrading equipment in the Buffalo Police Department (BPD.) The city has maintained that there are budgetary issues with the dwindling manpower within the BPD and this could be an avenue in which to address those concerns. By regularly attending D District meetings and serving as a member of the Joint Commission to Examine Police Reorganization, Raines has developed a valuable relationship with the department and understands the difficulties it faces policing a city the size of Buffalo. He believes that more officers on the force, a new approach to community policing and more visibility in the community would reduce crime in North Buffalo as well as elsewhere in the city. "We are only as strong as our weakest neighborhoods," said Raines.
Right now, the Coalition has no plans to develop a formal organization. Any funding that might be sought could be done through a member group that already has its 501c3 status as a non-profit, such as the Parkside Community Association. But, eventually, as North Buffalo resident and active member Kathy Kitzmiller says, the Coalition could evolve into another Elmwood Village Association. Kitzmiller noted that the Coalition was key in promoting the well-attended Buffalo Green Code Neighborhood Workshop that took place at School 64 this past March. "We can have an impact on property taxes, street maintenance, business development, maintaining our parks and activities around the North Buffalo area."
For more information, Raines urges interested residents to visit the North Buffalo Block Club on Facebook.
Photo: Richard Raines & Senator Grisanti