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City Council debate over funding Vibrant Batavia continues

By Billie Owens

"Which came first, Vibrant Batavia? Or the Summit Street Neighborhood Group?" asked Batavia City Councilman John Canale following a presentation about Vibrant Batavia at Monday night's meeting.

There was no action taken on anything concerning Vibrant Batavia. But the issue of whether to continue funding for the 2017-18 fiscal year will need to be addressed at some point. The next city council meeting is April 18. 

Canale was asking Don and Pam Hiron, who have lived for 35 years at 137 Summit St. Don spoke in praise of the community-building initiative, heretofore coordinated by Leanne DiRisio, prior to the council meeting. DiRisio is leaving her part-time job to start a new business in the Masonic Temple Downtown next the Charles Men's Shop.

"The drug problem came first," replied Pam from the audience.

Plagued by shady goings-on and concerned about an upswing in crime in their neighborhood, the Hirons and other residents formed a concerned citizens group. Then in April 2014, they reached out to City Hall to find solutions. They were put in contact with Batavia PD and DiRisio and they worked in tandem to improve conditions.

"Leanne helped us formulate our goals and helped behind the scenes," Don said.

There were meet-and-greets, which were well attended, and included the presence of firefighters and police officers. Newcomers get gift baskets and those who live on the street get their very own specially designed keychain.

"We succeeded in shutting down several drug houses and improving the quality of life, restoring a sense of pride, regardless of age, nationality, race, religion," Don Hiron said, "and made new friends, rekindled old friendships. Was it worth the investment? Yes."

City Manager Jason Molino said Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) funds have paid for the 30-hour-per-week Community Coordinator position.

The total funding for Vibrant Batavia is about $45,000 annually, and in addition to the coordinator's salary, it covers the costs of community events and communications.

For the upcoming fiscal year, 2016-17, there's still $25,000 intact from the 2016 allocation, and Molino proposes bridging the gap by auctioning a city-owned foreclosed house at 109 Walnut St.

"It's not like a lot of foreclosed homes; it has value, it's not in bad shape," Molino said, of the three-bedroom, 1.5-bath abode, which he estimates might fetch $25,000 to $35,000.

The auction is in three weeks. If it sells for much less -- say $20,000 -- then plans for Vibrant Batavia would have to be scaled back accordingly.

But funding Vibrant Batavia in this fashion is not something to be done "year after year," Molino told the council.

"An auction is not going to produce revenue to fund this project every year," Molino said, adding that you also "can't grant fund your way through."

The job is a contractual one with Rochester-based NeighborWorks; it is not local municipal employment, but Batavia stills pays part of the contract.

Some residents have been vocal in their oppostion to public funding for Vibrant Batavia, launched in 2012 with the aim of eventually becoming self-funding.

"There was a very emotional discussion last year," Council President Eugene Jankowski said. "We need to remember the other 50 percent who aren't in favor of funding it."

He said groups like the Lions Club or Kiwanis Club do good works in the community with volunteers and private donations, without taxpayers' money.

Molino said Vibrant Batavia is not correctly characterized as "a service club initiative."

"It's a policy choice," Molino said, that some people would make because they believe over the course of time it strengthens neighborhoods and adds market value to properties.

"However you see fit to proceed as a group is up to you," Molino said, noting that the previous resolution authorizing funding is not binding to the current council.

"We will take ownership of whatever we decide to do," Jankowski assured Molino.

Councilwoman Rose Mary Christian questioned why, if Vibrant Batavia made $135,000 during 2015 as noted during DiRisio's presentation, that money can't be used to fund the coordinator's job.

Molino replied that it can't because the funds were specifically raised to pay for Centennial-related expenses -- the Time Capsule, the Sun Dial at City Hall, the Parade, commemorative coffee mugs, sweatshirts, Centennial party food and refreshments, etc.

Councilman Brooks Hawley praised DiRisio and called for a round of applause for her efforts. Likewise, Councilwoman Patti Pacino said she is so proud of what has been achieved to date, and just looking around on Bank Street, Tracy Avenue, Ross Street and State Street, for example, shows that changes for the better are being made.

"It is sparking out," Pacino said, people are painting, clipping bushes, growing flowers. "It is a growing thing that started in a small place."

Canale said he is a proponent of Vibrant Batavia and that the Summit Street model, known as a "targeted investment," is one that needs to be followed and more such groups need to be created.

Christian said she and others in the Sixth Ward tried three or four times, without success, in getting people together for events.

"This model won't work in every neighborhood," Molino said. "It's more likely to work in transitional neighborhoods that could go either way."

DiRisio said the point to remember about Summit Street is "The residents here have proven there's skin in the game. There's momentum. Why put up a wall?"

Jankowski asked staff to include the previous resolution for funding Vibrant Batavia in the next agenda packet so the council can refamiliarize themselves with it.

He said he wants constiuents to call or otherwise contact their representatives to let their wishes be known.

Joseph Guza

I am not going to get into all the details here, but I can say w/ 100% certainty that the problems on Summit Street were fixed by a lot of hard work by the residents who live(d) there and by near-constant contact with the Batavia Police Department. Vibrant Batavia had very little to do with the changes on Summit Street.

VB only took focus away from the problems on the street, which the residents were fully capable of fixing w/ help from the police. What problem neighborhoods really need is an independent voice, not connected with the City, that is capable of putting pressure on the do-nothing council members. Patti Pacino literally did nothing to help the Summit Street group. She attended a couple meetings and praised what the group was doing. That was it. When she was called upon to offer further support from the Council, she was not able to come through in any meaningful way.

I'm sure others have different opinions of the situation, but it is highly disingenuous for VB to attempt to justify itself on the basis of the Summit Street group. That group was coming together before there was any involvement by VB and all of the real progress had nothing to do with the ice cream socials etc.

Don't get me wrong - there is a place for social activities with neighbors. But VB puts the cart before the horse by encouraging block parties etc. in lieu of the work that's needed to deal w/ the real problems - like "fixing" a broken window by putting up new drapes.

Mar 29, 2016, 7:00pm Permalink
Joe Caruso

I have one question maybe others have thought of. Reading this article about funding Vibrant Batavia with money from a house that would be auctioned makes me ask... Is this house not tax payers money ? Then I question other properties that could be sold that are tax payers money but have been given away to others like Habitat ? I thought Vibrant Batavia was supposed to be self funded by now. I`m confused

Mar 29, 2016, 9:15pm Permalink
John Roach

Joe, you're not confused. VB was only supposed to be taxpayer funded for 1 year. That's what we were told. Then we were told that they got off to a slow start and needed another year of taxpayer money. Then last year we were told they just could not make it without more tax money. Now, we are told again, they just can not make it with more of our money. And the idea of taking a house, auctioning it off and giving the money to them is outrageous. There are other civic groups that do good work and are not asking the City to give them tax money. And do not forget, most of the tax money they get (about 85%) goes to pay overhead, with 5% of that going to a group in Rochester.

If VB can not make it on it's own by now, then good bye

Mar 30, 2016, 6:35am Permalink

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