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City urged to use social networks in emergencies

During emergencies or other major events, Buffalo should use social networking and e-mail alerts to keep residents informed, some Common Council members said Tuesday.

They want computer crews to look into harnessing Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and text messaging to improve "one-on-one communication" with constituents.

Other cities have jumped into the social network. Minneapolis, for example, sends e-mail and text message alerts to thousands of people when snow emergencies are declared. The city's "Minneapolis snow emergency" page on Facebook has 17,165 fans.

Council Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana, who represents the Lovejoy District, and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns sponsored a bill to nudge Buffalo deeper into the computer age. They noted that new tools could let the city use ZIP code data to contact people in specific neighborhoods immediately.

During an action-packed meeting Tuesday, the Council also called for an "education summit" to discuss the city school district's abysmal high school graduation rates. Only 57.3 percent of students receive diplomas. Among black males, only 31 percent graduate -- the eighth-lowest rate in the nation.

Some lawmakers complained of poor student achievement despite some of the highest per-student spending in the region. "We're paying for a Cadillac, and we're getting a 10-year-old Chevy," Fontana said.

The problems go far beyond the Board of Education, said Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith, chairman of the Council's Education Committee. He and other lawmakers, therefore, adopted a bill calling on local educators and top state officials to meet this spring to pinpoint solutions. The Council wants members of the state Board of Regents, the state education commissioner and other Albany decision-makers to participate.

The Council took action on several other matters:

* Lawmakers endorsed a plan to partner with city high schools to create a mentorship program. Each Council member would "adopt" a school and volunteer to mentor several students in hopes of providing them positive role models.

* The Council unanimously approved a plan aimed at making it easier for a developer to acquire the shuttered Statler Towers. The Council agreed not to push for back taxes or other expenses from the Statler bankruptcy estate. Instead, the city would pursue the debts after they become an obligation of the building's new buyer.

* Lawmakers bickered over whether the Council employs too many staffers. North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. noted that back in 1950 when lawmakers represented 580,000 constituents, the Council had 30.5 employees. The current payroll, Golombek said, exceeds 39. Some district offices have three full-time legislative aides, while most others have two, he noted, adding that the practice drives up health insurance and pension costs.

Council President David A. Franczyk, who represents the Fillmore District, said larger economic problems caused Buffalo's past fiscal woes. He defended the staff size. Being "lean and mean," he said, is one thing, but cutting so deeply that constituent services suffer is another.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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