Mount Vernon mayor fumes over NYC exporting its homeless there

NY Post November 2, 2019 7:36pm

Mount Vernon Mayor André Wallace

The mayors of towns who were unwitting recipients of homeless New Yorkers have a message for Mayor Bill de Blasio: Get lost.

Lawmakers from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Honolulu sounded off after a Sunday Post report revealed a city program secretly exported 5,074 families — 12,482 individuals — to 373 towns with a full-year’s rent in their pockets.

At least one is demanding US Attorney General William Barr launch an investigation into Hizzoner’s Special One-Time Assistance program.

“Hawaii will not be able to handle a large number of homeless people being dumped here should New York continue this practice,” wrote Democratic state Rep. John Mizuno after learning one family moved to Honolulu.

“I ask that your agency conduct a legal review and investigation into this matter, as many Hawaii residents have serious concerns that this illegal program could exasperate [sic] an already tragic situation here in Hawaii.”

Closer to home in Westchester County, Mount Vernon Mayor André Wallace, a Democrat, had harsh words for City Hall in response to revelations his community has taken in 138 homeless families in the last two years.

“I want to send a message to everyone: We know what you are doing, and I’m not playing with you,” he fumed. “Those days are over. Our town is not standing for it.”

He said he’d received calls and emails from 60 to 70 outraged taxpayers last week.

Since the program launched in August 2017, New York City has paid $89 million in rent for homeless families to move out of shelters, according to the Department of Homeless Services. It has spent millions more on travel and moving expenses, but refuses to disclose the price tag.

Once the rent subsidy runs out, some SOTA families turn to their new communities for costly social services.

Wallace — who is up for re-election Tuesday in a race that hinges heavily on homeless issues — said Mount Vernon taxpayers footed the bill to remove one SOTA family from an abandoned building last summer.

“Their SOTA money expired, the landlord then kicked them out of their dwelling, and then they end up in the basement of a zombie home,” he said.

“We had to get them out of there and into a shelter.”

In neighboring Yonkers, where 136 SOTA families have moved, Mayor Mike Spano said he is considering suing the city of New York over the “secretive, unfair” program.

New York refuses to tell Yonkers how many homeless families they’re housing there and where, according to Spano.

“It’s unfair for the biggest city in America to deal with their homeless issue by sending it to other communities without telling them,” he said.

Mitch Colvin, the mayor of Fayetteville, which houses six New York City families, said, “We have our own problems with homelessness here in Fayetteville, which we are actively working to address. But how we address them does not involve sending them to other cities.”

The SOTA program has even been hit by claims from recipients who say the city abandoned them without services in slums and substandard homes.

DHS shot back at critics.

“Use of language like ‘export,’ ‘ship,’ ‘dumping grounds,’ when talking about human beings who [are] just trying to find housing and get back on their feet is offensive to us and to those we serve and support every day,” spokesman Isaac McGinn said.

Can Mount Vernon Change?

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].

Time to Stop the “Takers” from Fleecing Our City

I’m going to be outlining this topic in more detail in another 3-part series over the next few weeks, but I wanted to give you a quick preview of a discussion on a very important topic affecting every taxpayer in Mount Vernon.

This series will introduce many of you to a concept you may not be familiar with: Payment in Lieu of Taxes (called PILOTs or PILOT programs). These programs are made in conjunction with local “industrial development agencies” which are authorized by State law to provide tax breaks for developers who want to build in a city. Generally speaking, they donate some amount to the local development agency and, in return, they receive huge tax breaks, which can last for decades.

Two residential projects which have been approved by Mount Vernon’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) in the last few years involve over $120 million in tax giveaways over the next FORTY years, meaning Mount Vernon’s taxpayers will be subsidizing these developments for the foreseeable future. These developments continue to use city services like police, fire, education, and sanitation, which are becoming dangerously inadequate and causing property taxes to double. These PILOT’s won’t contribute to the cost of those services. It’s just outrageous.

More concerning is that the “donations” made by the developers to the IDA in order to get these huge tax breaks are often poorly accounted for or, frankly, just missing. Like the Water Department, the IDA “black box” is overseen and run solely by the Mayor’s office, often through the Planning Commissioner, without the usual City Council oversight of other city agencies. The opportunity for abuse, kickbacks, and corruption is staggering.

What’s needed is a smarter approach. We need to end the gravy train these residential developers are on and re-embrace the original intent of the IDA – which is to encourage “industrial” (that is, commercial) development. Commercial development, unlike residential development, doesn’t consume nearly as many city resources (for example, a Target isn’t using the city’s schools but a high-rise apartment building is), provides ongoing jobs beyond the construction itself, and generates sales tax revenues for the city. So, even if there is some property tax reduction to encourage a retail store, that reduction is offset by other tax revenue – making a properly constructed PILOT actually beneficial to the city. Right now, the PILOTs that have been approved are fleecing Mount Vernon under the nose of the Mayor and our taxpayers.

We need to tell the “takers” that they’re no longer welcome in Mount Vernon and encourage responsible commercial development that will actually help our city grow. We need to conduct a full investigation into recent activities at the IDA, which very well may include the involvement of several candidates currently running for Mayor, and demand a full audit of the funds of that “black box” agency. The corruption has to stop, and we need these people to explain themselves and their decisions.

As Mayor, I will only allow responsible development that produces jobs with livable wages. I will seek development of businesses, which currently do not exist in our City. Businesses such as Hotels, Auto dealers, catering halls, shopping centers and movie theatres are very much needed in Mt Vernon. It’s time to stop trying to improve our skyline by killing our bottom line.

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

500 Days that Crippled Mount Vernon

Why There Won’t Be a Hospital in Our City

I apologize in advance for the tone of this article, but I’m tired of watching the so-called “leaders” of this City continue to fail its citizens. It’s been over 500 DAYS (almost a year and a half) since Montefiore announced its plans to close Mount Vernon Hospital and the first rally occurred. Since then, nothing has changed except the rallies are attracting less and less people, most of them not from Mount Vernon.

Two COVID-19 pandemics took a disproportionate toll on our community, killing twice as many people as other communities. And, in the middle of it all, Montefiore has quietly proceeded with its plans to close Mount Vernon Hospital.

In October 2019, I wrote this in the Mayor’s newsletter:

“There are a number of reasons hospitals fail. One of them, unfortunately, is that they were never allowed to succeed. Mount Vernon’s hospital is one of those stories. We cannot sit idle and watch this hospital close down. Mayor Wallace has a plan to keep it open, expand its services, and attract the critical investment it needs to succeed.

Mayor Wallace has already reached out to experts who specialize in turning hospitals like Mount Vernon’s around, who have done it successfully. Financing is available through state and federal resources. Combined with private partnerships, Mount Vernon’s residents could see an expanded level of care, including OB-GYN, long-term adult care, mental health, dialysis, and treatment of chronic illness. Mayor Wallace can make it happen.”

Even though I didn’t win the election for Mayor, I didn’t give up on the hospital. I’ve been working for the last 18 months on trying to save this hospital. I’ve assembled a team – the right team – to turn it around. I’ve secured the money needed to make sure their efforts succeed. And, I’ve approached every politician and person I know in this State who can help get this project off the ground. There’s no money in this for me. It takes me away from other projects, but I’m just tired of watching our City erode into irrelevance. I’m tired of watching our elected leaders hold rallies but come up with NO PLAN WHATSOEVER to save this hospital.

Saving our hospital has always been especially important to me because I was raised by parents who worked their entire lives in the healthcare industry. My mother, Beryl Wallace, worked for North Central Hospital as head nurse of 2D until the day she passed. And, my father, Wally Wallace, worked at Montefiore and Einstein Hospital as a biomedical engineer for over 40 years. I grew up listening to conversations about healthcare, the importance of unions, and the unjust disparity in healthcare between communities.

Hospitals don’t fix themselves. Money from the Federal government will not magically fix the structural and systemic problems that have created the healthcare crisis in Mount Vernon. You need an EXPERIENCED TEAM of people who know how to run a hospital, provide the right care to the community, navigate reimbursement schemes, unwind legal nightmares and liabilities, negotiate fairly with the unions who work in the hospital, and experts who can reach out to the community to build trust again. Most of all, we need committed funding to upgrade facilities, attract doctors and nurses, train staff, build out new practice areas and specialties that fit the community, not vice versa.

All of that was in place 500 days ago. I’m not sure I can continue to say the same thing anymore. Specialist teams like this move on to other hospitals that need their help. Money moves on to other places that are motivated and ready to solve problems. After 18 months of cajoling, promising, convincing, and begging to keep this team, the money, and this plan in place, I recently received a call with some distressing news, “If we can’t put something together in the next two weeks, we will need to move on.”

And, just like that, the best chance to save this hospital just dumped Mount Vernon. Not because they don’t want to help. Not because they can’t help. Simply because our politicians can’t get out of their own way to accept help, and other communities who need their help are ready to move forward. We need to stop pretending that the world is turning its back on us, especially when we keep slamming the door in its face.

Politics in Mount Vernon is a zero-sum game. We saw this play out with Memorial Field, and the same thing is happening again with the hospital. If someone succeeds, the theory goes, then someone else thinks they have to fail. So, they don’t support a plan because someone else might get credit. It’s shameful and petty. It’s why we don’t have a lot of things in this City.

With the exception of Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, who has been helpful in working on this issue with us, every other politician completely ignored our plan. I sent letters to the Governor, copying everyone on them, including the Mayor and the City Council. (Click here to read letter) I’ve called Montefiore over a dozen times to make a deal. No one could be bothered to even hold a meeting with the investors and the team. Not one phone call. It’s not about healthcare or money – this is all purely political.

If you want to know why you won’t have a hospital in Mount Vernon this time next year, blame petty, juvenile politics as you trek across the county for your next medical procedure. People will die in our community because they do not have access to adequate healthcare. And, every politician who sat on their hands and did nothing for the last 500 days will have to live with those deaths on their conscience.

I never gave up on this City and neither should any of you. If you want to save Mount Vernon Hospital, call your elected officials and start asking questions. Ask them what’s their plan to save the hospital besides rallying. If they tell you they have one, ask them to present it. If they can’t do that, ask them why they haven’t supported the only plan that has been put forward. No matter what they say, TELL them it’s time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.

Don’t allow our hospital to be shut down because, once it closes, it will not reopen. We need this hospital to save lives in our community, and everyone needs to get involved. The life this hospital saves one day may be your own!