A number of people have asked me to address this topic over the past few weeks. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but an important one, “corruption:” which just never seems to go away in Mount Vernon. In previous columns, we talked about how PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) were depriving our City of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and negatively impacting our property taxes, crime, sewers, and schools. We talked about how real estate developers pervert government through campaign contributions and side deals with elected officials. We talked about how affluent communities in the County have refused to share the burden of at-risk and high-challenge residents equally, and Mount Vernon has been used as a dumping ground by them and by New York City. We talked about how our own government officials were complicit in allowing all of this to happen.
It’s worth discussing again because, unfortunately, it’s playing out right under our noses again. Let’s walk through it slowly so everyone can see how this scam plays out. It all starts with a real estate developer who wants to cash in on the available State and Federal money that is ear-marked for “affordable housing” in poor communities. They basically get the State and Federal governments to pay them to build a low-income development that the developer will own (and later sell). But, they can’t just build these massive developments anywhere. They need permission from the City and, sometimes, they even need help securing the land on which to build the development. So, as you might expect, they find a willing accomplice (sometimes more than one) on the City Council to be their advocate in Mount Vernon’s government. Are there kickbacks involved? Almost certainly. Direct payments in cash? Probably. Campaign contributions? Absolutely. The problem with these developments is that they offer nothing to the City except a higher burden of taxes, crime, police and fire expenses, and a drain on school resources. By securing PILOTs through the Mayor’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA), these developments avoid millions in taxes for DECADES, forcing homeowners to pay for all those additional services. It costs developers next to nothing to build while costing the City a ton, the developers get a valuable building and pay very little taxes. Sounds like a great deal, right? It is, and that’s why it’s worth paying off elected officials to get them. The City Council last week introduced legislation to give away five parcels of land on Fourth Avenue to a developer. They claimed the developer would be paying $1.5 million for the properties, but then they immediately proceeded to agree to pay the developer to demolish the buildings that are currently there, at a cost of $1.58 million. Taken together, your City Council wanted to PAY the developer $80,000 to take 5 pieces of City-owned property. What’s more outrageous is the fact that three members of the Council voted in favor of this scam. One sane member voted against it, and one couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. Luckily, the legislation didn’t pass because it requires four Council votes to sell City property. I wasn’t there, but I hear that at least one Council member was so mad that they wanted to get the Charter Review Commission to propose a change to that rule (which it refused). Tempers were hot in the Council meeting. No one ever pushes a bad deal this hard unless they have something to gain. Voters in this City have to start asking some difficult questions of their elected officials, starting now. For example, how do certain members of the City Council, on a salary of $33,000 per year (with no other job), afford to pay cash for houses in Martha’s Vineyard and the Caribbean? How do these Council members afford to travel so often? Think of it this way: if you made $33,000 per year ($22,000 after taxes), how many houses would you be able to buy in cash and how many trips would you be able to take, after paying all of your bills? I don’t need to tell you. You can figure it out. What’s worse is that these folks have been winning elections in this City for years. Their schemes have extended across almost half a dozen different mayors which tells me that they have hit upon a system that works no matter who is in the Mayor’s office. Sure, it helps if the Mayor is receptive to similar corruption, but it’s certainly not a requirement. The whole system stinks. Remember those talks about creating a Master Plan for development in the City? Guess who killed that? If the City has a Master Plan, sales like the ones proposed last week would need to fit within the plan or they could not happen. These Council members know how to hold on to the committees that push these sales and have had their hooks into the Planning Commission and the Zoning Board for years – two entities that can rubber-stamp these scam transactions. I replaced the Planning Commissioner and threw a bunch of folks off both boards when I was Mayor, and I have not been welcomed around certain Council members since! Unfortunately, the tentacles of this corruption run deep and involve more than just a Council member or two. It’s a culture of corruption that has infested City Hall, and it’s time that WE stop sending the same criminals back there every four years. It’s time WE demand some real accountability around the finances and conflicts of interest in our elected officials. If we don’t do both soon, we won’t have to worry about doing it later. There won’t be a City left to care about and the thieves will be kicking up their heels on a beach in Barbados when the dust settles. The corruption is real. The costs are enormous. The damage is permanent. It’s time we stop being victims. OUR government has failed us and continues to fail us. As the BOSS, what do we plan to do about it? If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected].