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November 10, 2020 - 6:22am

Council member vows not to cut city youth services, assures advisory board that it will be involved

youth_board_.jpg

If City Council Member John Canale has his way, there is no way Batavia’s youth programming will be cut.

Canale, attempting to allay the concerns of City Youth Board representatives David Twichell and Paula Fischer, said he sees the city’s youth program as “an invaluable gem” and said he would do everything in his power to continue or expand offerings to its young residents.

Speaking at Monday night’s City Council Business Meeting at the City Centre Council Board Room, Canale responded to public comments by Twichell, Fischer and Fischer’s son, Andrew, who are troubled about a proposal to contract with the Genesee Area Family YMCA for city youth services.

Currently, the city has a contract with Genesee County to partially a fund a youth bureau executive director, Jocelyn Sikorski, but a resolution – currently placed on hold by the County Legislature – would dissolve that agreement and compel City Council to devise a new plan for youth services.

“Much like Paula, (who) spoke about the youth programs in the city, I grew up every day of my life as a kid at MacArthur Park on Monday through Friday, all day there except for lunch because when I was a kid, they didn’t provide lunch,” Canale said. “The youth bureau is an invaluable gem that we have here in the city, and I have no intention of decreasing the services the bureau offers.”

Canale said the cost to run the youth programs in the city “is miniscule in the whole budget picture.”

“So, I can assure anybody that is here tonight that is concerned about Council doing away with the youth bureau or doing away with the services that we provide our local youth, I can guarantee if any of my Council colleagues brought that up, I would definitely be dead set against it,” he said. “And I don’t think there is anybody here tonight that is against that.”

He then warned people about reacting solely from what they read on social media as well as The Batavian and another local news outlet.

“Don’t believe everything that you read, number one, and try not to formulate your opinion as to what the City Council’s actions are going to be based upon what you're reading on social media,” he offered.

Canale: No Discussion about Cutting Services

Canale said he didn’t recall any discussion pertaining to doing away with the youth bureau or cutting any services.

“Correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe I misunderstood or missed something, Rachael,” he said, looking at Interim City Manager Rachael Tabelski. “Did Jocelyn not come to us as a county employee contracted with the city to share services? Did she not come to us and request that we cut that contract out?”

Tabelski replied, “That is correct.”

Canale responded that “for some reason, it seems like the public is under the impression that we in the city want to cut that out.”

“And the county manager (Matt Landers) also made public comment that I read that they were going to kind of leave it in our lap first to see what move we made first. I want the public to realize that this was the county that came to the city … and requested that maybe we could discontinue that contract.”

Canale said no decision has been made on the status of the contract with the county, stating that it is at the discussion stage.

“We’re looking at all possibilities and Rachael is looking into other possibilities as well as she approached the YMCA to see what they might be able to do to offer as good of services, if not better services,” he said.

He then aimed his remarks at Twichell and Fischer.

Advisory Board will be Involved

“For whatever reasons, the (Youth) board has not been in the communication circle yet, but I would only assume that at some point when the decisions are going to be made, that we would go to our advisory board and say that these are some of our thoughts (and) what do you guys think?” he said.

Canale urged people to not have a “knee-jerk reaction” to the situation based on social media or news accounts.

“This is all still in the talking stages. Nothing has happened. No programs have been cut,” he said.

The city’s youth center – the Liberty Center for Youth on City Church’s St. Anthony’s campus on Liberty Street – has been closed due to COVID-19 and because the city doesn’t have any youth services employees at this time.

“Maybe, like (Council Member) Rose Mary (Christian) said, 'maybe it’s time to look at that,' ” Canale said. “I don’t know. That should be part of the discussion as well. As things start to open up, we could look at that. Or now, obviously on the rise again with COVID, maybe this isn’t a good time to look at that, I don’t know.”

Youth Programming: More than Meets the Eye

Fischer, a member of the City of Batavia Youth Board for 10 years, said she has “fond memories” of the city parks’ program having attended Kibbe and Pringle parks. She is the director of school-based health programs for the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.

She said she has volunteered during city youth events, providing oral health education and giving out hundreds of toothbrushes and toothpaste to kids and families. She called Batavia a great place to raise a family due, in part, to the services it offers to its young people.

Fischer emphasized that the youth bureau “is more than just the summer rec program -- although the rec program is well-known, serving hundreds of children every summer, providing safe, fun and educational programming – including lunch, which is a big help to many families.”

She mentioned several other events and programs under the city youth bureau, including:

  • The community garden;
  • National Night Out in conjunction with the city police;
  • The Liberty Center for Youth with services provided in conjunction with the YMCA;
  • Programs run by City Church at the St. Anthony’s campus;
  • A partnership with the Batavia City School District for busing to the youth center;
  • Summer safe carnival open to the community;
  • Youth and volunteer awards banquet at Terry Hills Restaurant;
  • A partnership with the Arc of Genesee Orleans for Saturday programs;
  • Visitation at nursing homes and the Senior Center;
  • Open gym nights and grants for summer recreation tennis programs.

“All of these programs provide a sense of pride in the community to the city residents,” she said.

Fischer said she was asking City Council to work with the advisory board to address budgetary issues and “come together to see if there’s a way we can be mindful of the city budget without decimating youth services.”

“A reduced level of service may be appropriate at this time with time to rebuild in the future,” she said.

Youth Board is ‘Open, Willing to Cooperate’

Twichell, the City Youth Board president, extended an invitation to all City Council members “that we are open and we are willing to cooperate with the city, and we are willing as an advisory board to help guide the process.”

“We know … with these COVID restrictions and the tough economic times we’re facing, we know the city is facing great challenges,” he said. “But there are times when we feel that there is somewhat of a disconnect between the board and the City Council.

"I’m here tonight to open and maybe knock down some of those barriers, and tomorrow I will be putting together an email for each and every one of you that will list all of our contact information.”

He then urged Council members to reach out to the advisory board if they have any questions about youth services.

Fischer’s son, Andrew, a former youth board vice president, said he worked for the summer rec program for five years during his summer breaks from Canisius College, where he earned an MBA in Accounting.

“A lot of our youth programs, specifically summer rec, are great ways for youth in our community to interact with one another and interact with the rec leaders,” he said. “It instilled in me a sense of leadership and a sense of empathy toward some of the kids, who obviously were from tougher situations.”

He said it didn’t “sit right” with him when he heard about youth services possibly changing, and noted that he looked at past city budgets on the website and saw that the summer recreation came in below budget last year.

McGinnis Objects to Sending Letter

Prior to Canale’s comments, Council Member Al McGinnis, the city’s liaison to the youth board, said he didn’t get a copy of a letter sent by the youth board to the media last week – a letter that objected to the resolution to terminate the city/county agreement and expressed the viewpoint that contracting with the YMCA instead was a done deal. (Fischer said that McGinnis and the other Council members did receive the letter).

“If you’re an elected or public official and you’re on a board, it is incumbent upon you to make sure that everyone on the board, whether they agree or disagree, knows that correspondence is going out to the public,” McGinnis said. “If not, the public gets confused when they hear two different sets of a thing. When you do it unilaterally, and basically conduct a rogue operation, without informing everyone, it looks bad for everyone concerned.”

He added, “At the time, the board members could have spoken to us at the meeting and said 'here are our points of view – we’d like to make sure that this is heard by the public.' No one is going to censure or stop a report … We owe it to the public to speak with a unified voice, or at least if it’s not unified, everyone gets a chance to say their piece.”

Christian asked how many kids attend the youth center on Liberty Street and if the city had any youth bureau employees at the center.

Tabelski said attendance ranged between 30 and 50 – “sometimes as low as five” – and that the city had no youth program employees, other than Sikorski, who directs city, Genesee and Orleans county youth activities.

“I look down the street and I see tons of kids out there,” Christian said, referring to the Liberty Center for Youth. She also asked about costs should the YMCA get involved.

Tabelski said that, pre-COVID-19, the city and the YMCA each supplied three or four staff members at the center, depending upon the number of children there, and that the YMCA did not charge the city for those employees,

She also mentioned that the city’s program coordinator, Lydia Schauf, recently took another job with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.

Could Youth Center Have Stayed Open?

Christian then questioned why the center has been closed for so long while school is in session.

“It was supposed to be because of COVID," she said. "I see people at Walmart, I see people downtown. I see them at the grocery store, I see people here. I see people everywhere in the city. Those kids could wear a mask like anyone else in the city and they, I’m quite sure, would stop anyone from coming in without a mask.

"And I’m quite sure they would be disinfecting that facility for the kids over there. And they’re playing basketball on Tuesday nights and I haven’t heard of a soul from that center who has COVID.”

After Tabelski explained that the city was unable to hire part-timers (due to a hiring freeze) and, as a result, she contacted YMCA leadership to see if that organization could provide youth services in an attempt to cut costs and “also provide the same level of service.”

“I engaged in a discussion with the YMCA if they could staff the center and until we come to any preliminary contract terms, you’ll have nothing (in the form of a resolution) in front of you,” Tabelski said. “At such point, you would have a presentation by the YMCA on the programming that they can provide for us that is the same or better than what we’re providing today at a lower cost to the residents.”

Christian’s response indicated that she wasn’t buying that explanation.

“Yeah, it was mentioned on The Batavian that we have to think of the taxpayers,” she said. “We sure as hell don’t think about the taxpayers when it comes to lights for Ellicott Street over there for the trail, especially when at 4:30 at night it’s going to be dark in the winter time and the summer time around 9 o’clock. We don’t think about salary increases either, now do we?”

At that point, Paul Viele, who was presiding over the meeting in place of City Council President Eugene Jankowski Jr., who was out of town, cut Christian off.

Tabelski: Let’s Give it Another Try

Minutes later, Tabelski directed her comments to Twichell and Fischer, stating that she came to them during an Oct. 27 meeting in “good faith with ideas on our situation and our strategy.”

“And when you attended the meeting, you sat there, you listened to what I had to say, you listened to my ideas, we had great dialogue. And I am willing to continue that dialogue with you. But I prefer we did it in a committee setting and not go around the committee setting with emails and letters outside of the people on that committee and to the media, so we can really achieve something,” she said.

Tabelski credited the youth board for its commitment to the cause, but said “we have to think differently about this.”

“I am willing to come back and sit with you guys. And this time at the meeting, please speak up because when I left that (previous) meeting, everyone was in agreement to the strategy that I was going to look into and bring to Council.”

After she finished, Fischer attempted to present a “rebuttal,” but was told that she was not allowed to do that. 

“Then I will give my rebuttal to the media and you can read it there,” Fischer said.

Following the meeting, Fischer repeated the youth board’s claim that Tabelski had indicated to them that the decision to dissolve the city/county contract had already been made, and that Sikorski had obtained a grant to direct a Safe Harbor program and “wrote herself into that and changed her job description.”

Fischer also said there is someone who was employed by the city at the youth center who is willing to return to work there.

“When Lydia resigned, they didn’t feel like they had to go back and readdress this,” Fischer said. “They said, ‘OK, great, everybody is gone, and now we can really go and outsource youth services.' ”

She said the youth board is “leery about that.”

“They outsourced the county youth director, and look where we are,” she said. “And I don’t think we’re going to have the same quality of services – and it was our feeling that we had to let the community know.”

Photo: City Youth Board members David Twichell and Paula Fischer speaking to the media following Monday night's City Council meeting. Photo by Mike Pettinella.

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