Almost immediately following any government mishap, there is a well-orchestrated cover-up complete with statements meant to misdirect and confuse the public with rehearsed talking points so all the players can present the same alternative facts. As part of that, people who refuse to tow the line on the official “story” are demoted, suspended, escorted out by police or fired to intimidate them into not talking. This type of activity isn’t just reserved for the national government, but lately it’s also been seen at the local level. Shortly after I reported about the City of Mount Vernon Water Department suspiciously increasing Mount Vernon’s water rates, the cover-up campaign began with newsletters, television interviews, and social media blogs. I would like to address the most common “explanations” offered by the Water Department by providing valid information and solid logic.

Keep in mind the reality as you consider the Water Department’s “explanations” – Mount Vernon’s residents are seeing substantially higher increases in their bills, many of which have doubled and tripled. That’s a fact. The one glaring conclusion to be drawn from the Water Department’s various declarations is that they are definitely collecting more money from Mount Vernon’s residents than is required.

Explanation #1 – New York City is Gouging Mount Vernon. The Water Department’s most recent television interviews along with the most recent memo (published September 29th 2018 by the Mayor in his Weekly Report) states the primary justification for raising the rates from $3.30 to $3.75 per 100 cubic feet (a 13.6% rate hike) is to prepare for an “anticipated” increase in cost from New York City, the source of Mount Vernon’s water supply. There are a couple of problems with this explanation. Firstly, according to the Mount Vernon City Charter section § 49 titled “Water rates”, only the Mount Vernon City Council is authorized to increase water rates. Neither the Water Department nor the Mayor can increase water rates without Council approval and, the City Council most certainly did not increase the water rates. As to their claim that they published “notices” of the increase in local papers, that’s patently irrelevant. They can publish it on the front page of the New York Times if they want. It doesn’t give them any authority to independently raise water rates. If they want to raise water rates, they are obligated to come to the City Council, which they have not done.

Secondly, now the Water Department Superintendent claims that he has “advanced” knowledge that New York City (the source of Mount Vernon’s water) plans to increase its water rate; yet, he has sought to keep this information from the public and the Mount Vernon City Council, to whom he is legally obliged to submit his report. I have formally requested in writing the “anticipated” increased rate directly from New York City and expect to have a definitive answer very quickly. Based on publicly available information, however, the anticipated increase looks to be more like 1.25% – roughly one-tenth the amount of the 13.6% increase the Water Department claim they instituted.

Explanation #2 – Actual Water Consumption Has Exploded. The most audacious claim by the Water Department is that Mount Vernon residents are just using more water. In fact, Mount Vernon rates of usage suggested by the Water Department are more aligned with residents of Las Vegas and Phoenix – two cities located in the desert – than with its surrounding communities, including New York City. The 2017 Water Quality Report issued by the same Water Department tried to claim that the Typical Annual Consumption Rate (TAC) of 164,000 gallons per family of four to be true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t match up with another reality contained in the same report: that the Overall Flow Through City Mains has actually decreased from 2016 to 2017, showing people are using less water in 2017 than they were in 2016.

Are you taking twice as many showers? Watering your lawn twice as much? Washing your car twice as much? Of course not, however, the Water Department claims not only some people are doing that, they’re claiming everyone who lives in Mount Vernon is doing it. And, they know this because they claim they are tracking it better, even if their annual report says otherwise.

Explanation #3 – The Sewer Lawsuit is the Cause. The most preposterous claim is that the lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice to address disrepair of Mount Vernon’s sewer pipes requires a massive increase in water revenue. This is fractured logic because the Water Department is not responsible for the storm water or sewer system; that is under the auspices of the Department of Public Works (DPW). The City Council and Comptroller has already funded a City Engineer, Planning Commissioner, and additional DPW workers to address the sewer system; furthermore, the Water Department is prohibited from raising water rates to funds sewer pipe repairs.

So, what’s really going on here? Maybe this department is just criminally incompetent in a way that it has no explanation for any of its actions or why the rates have gone through the roof. It could be that simple. The other possibility, however, is more serious. Maybe we’re dealing with incompetent criminals, either actively involved or being used as pawns by others while they simply look the other way. If this department is being used as a slush fund, they are engaging in criminal activity either way. In one of my favorite movies, “All the President’s Men”, Bob Woodward was told by Deep Throat to “follow the money” if he wanted to figure out what happened. Eventually, the misconduct led all the way up to people with far more power than the petty burglars that the investigation started with.

At its best, the Water Department’s response to questions about its lack of transparency and accountability demonstrates a violation of public trust. At its worst, this has the making of criminal cover up. Given an opportunity to come clean, the Water Department’s leadership has decided to thwart this investigation with misleading information that would not even fool a first-grader. As mentioned in my press conference, local and state law enforcement officials have been notified. I will persist until all excess funds paid to the Water Department are retuned to Mount Vernon residents.

If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected].

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