Fundraiser in support of democratic mayoral candidate Andre Wallace.Continue reading
Your presences requested at the fundraiser in support of Mayoral Candidate Andre Wallace for Mayor Mount Vernon, New York.Continue reading
Finger-pointing, blame, obstinate political leadership, stubborn inability to compromise, allegations of criminal wrongdoing, indecisive leadership, interruption in services, gridlock, instability and uncertainty all leading to government shutdown.
I had intended to write a column this week about the budget crisis in Washington and the shutdown of the Federal government over the holidays. But, as I started writing, I realized everything I was going to say about the national scene seems to be playing out in our own backyard. That long list above is equally applicable to Mount Vernon. And, we have to deal with it. Of all the commentators and talking heads to weigh in, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee described it the best, and it’s relevant here. “This is a made-up fight,” he said. “This is something that is unnecessary. It’s a spectacle and candidly, it’s juvenile.”
As I prepare to be sworn in as President of the Mount Vernon City Council on January 2nd, I do so in the middle of one of the nastiest and most polarized times in our City’s recent history. It’s a daunting challenge to say the least. Mostly, I’m concerned for the residents of Mount Vernon, particularly those who rely on government services. Winter is coming in earnest and now is not the time for childish political games. It’s time for the elected leadership to act like adults and come to the table, and I mean everyone.
I am not above the fray. The City Council will need to act as a cohesive group and provide the legislative leadership Mount Vernon needs. It will need to be a strong steward of the financial ship, but it will also need to recognize that the Mayor plays an important part in defining priorities, too. I will call upon my fellow members of the Council to come to the new session with a renewed spirit of open-mindedness and commitment to this City’s needs. The Council is the backstop of Mount Vernon’s government, and it needs to embrace both its responsibilities and its limitations.
To the Mayor, on January 2nd, I will be calling on you to engage and to help build unity in Mount Vernon with the Council and the Comptroller. Many of the problems we are facing linger far too long simply because we are acting in our own silos. The Mayor needs to do a better job of bringing the various parts of the government together around his vision. Even if it means he is not going to get every thing he wants all at once. He needs to demonstrate executive leadership and identify real priorities, and that begins with consensus building and engagement. He needs to come to the Council’s work sessions and roll up his sleeves. He needs to make his Commissioners available to answer questions. Most importantly, he needs to be open to hearing things he might not want to hear. If he comes to the Council ready to work and ready to listen, the Council will meet him halfway, with professionalism and courtesy. I will promise him that.
It will not be productive to use our time together trying to explain how we got into this mess. We need to use the time to prioritize and solve problems. We need to pull together and do the people’s business. The key to that is unity. Before Election Day this year, I was asked to give a speech about that very topic for the Democratic Party. I will end this column with the beginning of that speech since it seems to be the same problems we face in Mount Vernon.
“From the outside looking in, the Democratic Party has looked like a political circus the last few years – and the only people looking to buy tickets are the local media. The internal political bickering seems to cast a dark shadow over our party, concealing who we truly are. The reality is, we are ONE BIG FAMILY; and – YES – like all families, we have our fair share of disagreements. However, no disagreement should ever be allowed to destroy a family because what we disagree on is never as important as what binds us together.”
Enjoy your holiday season. After that, let’s come together and get to work.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected].
While it is tempting to use this column to address the many fabrications my opponents spread like a cancer across social media, I have always viewed this column as a means of promoting and sharing my ideas to allow the community the benefit of having them as we consider the best path forward for our City. I’ll address my opponents in the debates during the campaign.
What I do want to focus on in this column is real solutions for moving our City forward; starting with the initiatives I began in 2019 during my (brief) time as Mayor. Simply put, I inherited a situation filled with confusion and problems stemming from the previous administration, including MILLIONS of dollars in unpaid legal bills from outside lawyers hired by the City to defend lawsuits caused by that administration. There existed a culture of corruption that permeated throughout the Department of Public Works (DPW), the Police Department, and the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). Together with the money they were outright stealing from the Water Department, our City’s taxpayers were on the hook for as much as $25 million dollars. That’s money the previous administration is not going to have to pay, but, as taxpayers, we are.
My first steps were to cleaned house. I started by terminating those employees who were treating IDA funds like personal piggybanks and who were costing the City unwarranted and unnecessary expenses. I got rid of the Water Commissioner who was writing blank checks to the former Mayor’s criminal defense lawyers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in sweetheart deals to his cronies for work having nothing to do with the Water Department. I also stopped the police inappropriate overtime scam that was costing taxpayers in the millions.
I didn’t do it alone, I needed the help of people who knew what to look, who could be trusted and had no connection to the city or the past administration. Therefore, new people were brought in to look at the books and attorneys to take over the many court cases. These same lawyers ultimately saved our City over half a MILLION dollars in fines from the DEC related to Memorial Field.
We settle several cases that would have cost the City millions down the line. There were also several cases the City Council refused to approve; many of which are still pending. Working closely with the Comptroller, responsible decisions were made to pay priority bills to keep the City running. My next steps were to go after the people who stole money from the Water Department, returning hundreds of thousands of dollars in repayments to the taxpayers of this City. That decision was abandoned once I left office.
Some of my opponents’ are saying I did nothing while in office but spend money on lawsuits. Well, let’s check the record. I cleaned up Memorial Field and close the deal with the county; renovated municipal parking lots; returned City Hall’s parking lot to the People; purchased four brand new fire trucks at no cost to the taxpayer for the first time in over 20 years; changed the insane alternate side parking rules; implemented disaster planning training for City workers; remove several corrupt police officers, dropped the crime rate 33%, generated business investment in Mount Vernon (including a Starbucks); set up a master plan for cleaning up the sewers with an actual engineer; closed the books in the Water Department and put in procedures to avoid what happened in the past. Successfully negotiated settlements to end expensive litigation; delivered a finished budget in October “on-time” and left “$6 millions dollars” in grant money for the incoming administration.
Unfortunately, the same problems with the Comptroller are back. The IDA is back to considering destructive PILOTs, which will cost the taxpayers additional MILLIONS in costs for services and school district expenses.
In the four months a lot was accomplish. I considered coming back because there is a lot more I wish to offer our city. I ask my opposition, rather than create false narratives, please tell me:
Do you have a plan to save Mount Vernon Hospital? I do.
Do you have a plan for closing the books on the City’s finance? I do.
Do you have a budget that isn’t science fiction? I do.
Do you have people who can competently advise the city on the legal problems this City faces? I do.
Do you have a record of financial success outside of cashing paychecks from this City? I do.
That’s why I’m running again. That’s why the People of this City have asked me to run again. That’s why the Democratic Party has nominated me to run again.
Competence is necessary. Incompetence is lethal. Those who scream the loudest are usually the ones contributing the least.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected].
A couple of questions come immediately to mind: Why do we continue to be subjected to these tax increases and yet our government becomes less productive? Why do we continue to pay more and get less? And, why do we keep paying more and our City gets worse? The approach to answering these questions appears to be throwing money at problems, but the problem is not the money; it’s the people we’ve place in charge to manage that money.
I’ve said it many times over. The City of Mount Vernon is a corporation, and it needs to be operated as such. In order for a corporation to be successful, you must select the right people, those who know how to run a business. Each taxpayer is a shareholder in that corporation. What people often misunderstand is that the shareholders OWN the corporation. They are in charge ultimately. Many have made a large investment by purchasing homes and property in the City. If the City succeeds, our investment gains value. But, if it does poorly, our investment (like our home values) can disappear.
This is why it is so vitally important to have the right CEO and Board of Directors in place if we ever plan to rise. The budget is the single most important instrument we have when is comes to running a city/corporation. It tells us what we have to spend to accomplish our targeted objectives without going over. It tells us what the corporation’s leadership considers a priority. And, it is a test to see if that leadership can live within their means and not only stay within the budget but also strive to be under budget. Why? Because it’s not their money. It’s our money!
Every time a corporation has to go to the market to get new money (i.e., raise taxes), it is an admission that leadership has failed. They are obligated to account to the owners of the company – the shareholders/taxpayers – and explain why they cannot live within their means and why they need more of our money to accomplish less. If Mount Vernon’s leadership ran a company like the way they run our government that company would be out of business decades ago.
The only reason a government can run so incompetently and yet still be in “business” is because everything they do is about convincing the taxpayers that higher taxes every year are the norm. Well, they’re not! They should be the exception!
The most obvious measure of a city’s success is its school system. It gets the vast majority of the money to produce results – graduating students. We’ll discuss Mount Vernon’s school district in another part of this series, however, you can see what the conclusion is going to be: catastrophic failure. Every year, your leadership asks for more money to educate students and every year they fail to do it – in numbers that are crippling our community.
City services are also a good measure. They’re harder to notice, but there are ways you can tell. Look at the litter on the street. Look for patrol cars. Look at the burned-out houses, potholes and run-down businesses. Look at the broken windows and abandoned cars. All of these are indications that city services – fire, police, building inspection, traffic, etc. – are failing. Are they doing more with less, as they should? No! They’re doing less with more! It’s got to stop.
When we buy into that corporation, we do so on the understanding that our leadership understands whose money they are tasked with using. We do so expecting our investment in that corporation to increase in value and even pay a dividend by lowering our taxes every chance they can. What we don’t expect and cannot continue to tolerate is a constant reduction in value, to the point where our investment is entirely worthless.
Transparent leadership, Fiscal discipline, Competent management, Achievable goals and Reasonable priorities are what good corporations live by.
Ask yourself these questions. Are you seeing any of this in Mount Vernon’s government? Or, are you just getting more excuses and a higher tax bill?
In Part 2, we’ll discuss why the 2021 budget doesn’t work, why its assumptions are just bad science fiction and how our City is heading towards a rough landing.
When Apollo 13 called back to Houston, saying, “we have a problem…” it was an admission that if something didn’t change, they were going to have a disaster on their hands. Well, Mount Vernon, “We Have A PROBLEM”.
We’ve come to the end of our 3-part series on Mount Vernon’s finances and we’re no closer to a realistic budget or a competent fiscal plan for this City. All of the finger pointing I told you was going to happen in the article “Being Accountable Starts With us” has happened in spades. All of the science fiction budgeting I told you was going to happen in the article “Budgeting Our Way into The Poor House – A Mount Vernon Specialty” has happened. Sadly, it was TWO YEARS ago I told you about the same problems we’re seeing today in “Money Burnin Mount Vernon” in terms of this City leadership’s inability to get a handle on its finances. I’m not pointing this out to gloat, because I am heartbroken and saddened by it. This is OUR City. I’m very much a part of this City, and it truly hurts. We don’t have years to waste on the same old tired issues.
If Mount Vernon is going to “move forward,” it’s got to get away from the problems of the past and stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again! This year’s budget is another mistake and I have to be honest with you. It’s going to cause future problems in so many ways.
With Mount Vernon facing a fiscal CRISIS, we should start by analyzing what is NOT changing. The Mayor’s office salaries aren’t changing. The only thing the Mayor cut out of her budget is travel expense and promotional spending and that’s because COVID-19 is limiting travel for everyone. Forget cuts, some departments are getting raises! The Office of the City Clerk, Human Resources, the Department of Election, the Department of Management Services, the City Jail, the Animal Shelter, the Youth Bureau and the Planning Department among others. On the other hand, departments that should never suffer cuts like the Police Department, the Fire Department, the Buildings Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Programs for the Aging were on the table for major cuts.
This budget shows you all you need to know about an Administration’s priorities and it’s clear that safety and core city services are NOT priorities. Keeping loyal bureaucrats and friends employed ARE the priorities. With crime going up and buildings falling down, it is obvious that these priorities need to be modified and re-imagined. Our seniors are going to have to fend for themselves because the Planning Department needs more money – a department that hasn’t done anything meaningful in a decade (including when the current Mayor was in charge of it).
On the revenue side of things, the current version of the budget is just as bad. With over 46.665% of businesses in the City closed and not reopening because of COVID, the budget still counts on the same (even slightly higher) amount of sales tax revenue, and that’s a problem. Despite the fact that no one can transfer a title to real-estate property in the City, it projects an increase in transfer tax revenue, and that’s a problem. Then, there are huge increases on the sales and rental of City-owned properties when it takes up to two years to clear a title before that city owned property could be sold. Another problem.
As always, Law Department left off all of the settlements they enter into for legal cases against the City. There’s MILLIONS in judgments this year alone. The City hasn’t paid off the real estate tax settlements for the last three years, let alone this year’s settlements. They also ignore the fact that the Law Department spends WAY MORE every year on outside lawyers than they budget to spend – sometimes over a million more. Why do we have a Law Department if outside lawyers are going to do all of the work?
It’s almost the middle of February and there’s still no budget in final form. By the time this budget is passed by the Board of Estimates, sent to the City Council, becomes subject to a public hearing, published in the newspaper, changed and passed by the City Council, and sent to the Comptroller to process the bills, which takes about two weeks, it will be APRIL. We should probably expect our City tax bill (if we’re lucky) about the same time we’re doing our Federal and State taxes.
There’s a better way to manage this process. When I left the Mayor’s office at the end of 2019, I sat with the Mayor several times to help with a smooth transition. I left the Mayor a blueprint for how to get the budget finalized, even leaving a proposed budget for 2020; but the Mayor chose to do her own budget, which she had the right do. However, the administration had a whole year to work on this budget and it should not be late. As Mayor, I was able to get the numbers I needed from the Comptroller by sitting down together and setting egos and politics aside. As a CEO, the victory doesn’t lie with who’s right or wrong, it’s about what works or doesn’t work to get the job done.
As many of you have heard, I was recently endorsed by the Democratic Party to run again for City Council. I am truly grateful to the Democratic Party leaders and the Democratic Party Chairperson for their recognition and endorsement. As a lifelong Democrat, I am committed to helping this City rise economically. What I’m not going to do is engage in science fiction and pretend that our real priorities can be ignored.
No one is coming to rescue us. Not the State or the Federal government, especially, without a plan in place. We need to do it ourselves. It’s OUR City. It’s time to take control and stop pretending that hope and good intentions are substitutes for hard work and competence.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected]
The other day, while shopping in the supermarket, I saw a couple standing in front of me in line behind a woman with a child who was about 8 years old. As his mother began to check out, the little boy looked behind and said hello to the pregnant woman and her husband standing behind them. What puzzled me was not the sincerity or well-meaning sentiment behind the little boy’s greeting but, instead, the reaction of the mother who forcefully reprimanded her child for saying hello, stating “you NEVER say hello to anyone you don’t know.” In an instant, I watched the child’s mood change from happy to confused and troubled, trying to understand what he did wrong. The question that crossed my mind was “how do we ever meet someone unless we are willing to introduce ourselves?” I was taught growing up that “a stranger is a friend you just haven’t met yet” and it can start with hello.
I do recognize that we live in a more dangerous world these days, especially online. But, have we lost all sense of context? Has the world devolved into black-and-white rules, with no shades of gray? Are we really supposed to walk down the street, staring at our phones, ignoring EVERY stranger we encounter, looking up only occasionally to make sure we don’t bump into a wall, a pole or walk into the street?
Last week we discussed conformity as a community and how it keeps us from stepping outside the box or moving forward. I felt like I was watching that article playing out before me in the supermarket the other day, just in a different way. I walked out the store wondering how that child’s life will turn out if he’s afraid to speak up. It also made me think about how many of us are still held back by past events in our lives where we were made to feel wrong about so many things. I’ve read that if you chain an elephant to a stake, restricting its movement for 30 days, once freed the elephant will continue to confine itself as if it were still in chains. Unfortunately, I fear that little boy will have a different version of the same problem. By limiting his external interactions, he will turn inward, shying away from new thoughts, experiences and opportunities.
Applying that concept to Mount Vernon’s government, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. What are the chains keeping us in the same place? Are they real or imagined? How long did it take to get here and how long will it take to change? There’s an old saying “Just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be” and “just because it has been, doesn’t make it right.” It’s time Mount Vernon breaks out of its old ways before the world leaves us behind.
I’ve always stated that people are a product of their environment, so if we change the conditions, we can shift the mindset. This year, I watched our world pivot and change its behavior to combat a major pandemic. I’ve seen people stepping up to lift others suffering from financial hardship during these trying times. Unfortunately, I also watched a man’s last breath get squeezed out by a knee on his neck, bringing worldwide attention to the difference between how we treat each other as human beings. In protest, I’ve watched people of all races; colors, sex, and age come together in a common cause for change. It’s always the most difficult challenges that force us to change our mindset and pull together for the better. When that happens, it transports us from “we can’t” pessimistic downers, to “we can” optimism champion.
Why does it take these kinds of tragedies to effectuate change? How come we only focus on being better or stepping up when tragedy hits close to home? Why do we only seem to appreciate life and one another when it appears that the end is near? The ability to rise above and beyond the challenges in life are gifts of strength granted to us all, with no one above another. So, why only choose to use them in times of tribulation? Why ignore these gifts in our daily interactions? Maybe, it’s because many of us are simply too busy focusing inward on ourselves, instead of outward towards others. We’re blinded by looking for the “what’s in it for me” angle rather than “what’s in it for everyone.” I’m afraid there’s still plenty of the same thinking going on in City Hall right now.
Someone once told me that Mount Vernon is going nowhere, and it’s thrilled to death about it. Defensively, I dismissed that characterization at first. As I thought more deeply about it, I wondered if there was some truth to it. This commitment to conformity in our political thinking has taken us nowhere and will continue until we, as a whole shift the dynamic. Mount Vernon has been shackled to a post for too long and we’ve forgotten what it was like to move forward. We must embrace the instinct of that little boy in the supermarket to engage with the world and not run from it because it might be dangerous, messy or difficult.
There are only two possible destinations for Mount Vernon. One is nowhere, and the other requires us to rise above our current thinking and step into our greater selves. If we’re at our best only when we face a life-threatening challenge, then its time to realize our city is dying. So if we’re not ready for the slow singing, or flower bringing, then we must rise to the challenge, or prove that mother in the supermarket and our critics’ right.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected].
During the holiday season, we like look for examples of Good Will, and giving back to our community. Former Mount Vernon Mayor Andre Wallace did that last week, when he provided 200 residents of the city a free screening of the movie Black Panther: Wakanda at the Picture House in Bronxville.
“I learned about how others have rented out the theater for fund raisers, but I wanted to do something to give the community a chance to come together and have a great family day. With rising prices and inflation making it difficult on a lot of families, I wanted to give parents the opportunity to have a good time without worrying about anything,” said Wallace.
The Family Day included the movie, snacks and Black Panther action figures for all of the kids, free of charge. Some donations made it happen but also the generosity of Wallace, who thanked Shez Darden for her help in making sure everyone got to the theater and in their seats.