The Board of Water Supply is just a sleepy office off of one of the many corridors in City Hall. You’ve probably walked by it many times without taking much notice. But, this small office is allegedly ground zero for the most profitable “slush fund operation” in Mount Vernon. Under the sole control of the Mayor, Mount Vernon property owners are unknowingly overpaying millions of dollars per year into this agency, and those funds are being siphoned off into discretionary accounts of his choosing.
To put this in context, tax revenue collected from city residents is placed into the city’s general fund and is overseen and controlled jointly by the Comptroller, the City Council, the Mayor, together, through the Board of Estimates and Contract. From the collected taxes, regular cost items such as employee salaries, police cars and sidewalk repairs are budgeted and deducted. For items that are not regular cost items, such as the renovation of Memorial Field or emergency projects, ordinances are passed and approved by the various committees and branches of government. All transactions whether it is collecting taxes or paying cities bills are supposed to be transparent and available to the Mayor, City Council, Comptroller, and the general public.
Collection of water bill revenue is the one exception that does not follow the regular tax collection and spending process. Water bill assessment and collection is done through the Board of Water Supply, a department solely and wholly overseen by the Mayor. The City Council, Comptroller and the Board of Estimate and Contracts are not involved in water bill transactions. However, the Mount Vernon City Charter section (§30) mandates that the Board of Water Supply provide all requested information and documentation to the City Council. Collected funds are supposed to pay for the costs of getting our water from New York City’s aquifer system to our residents and maintaining water lines. If the process is working properly, the money collected from taxpayers should be equal to the cost of providing water to the city. Water bills paid by property owners are not intended to be a profit-making scheme. Any excess money in any given year is to be turned over to the Comptroller.
It appears the Mayor has turned the Mount Vernon Water Department into a money-making operation to generate millions of dollars hidden from the Comptroller and City Council members. By deliberately manipulating the water bills, the Mayor is creating a huge “slush fund” by collecting far more money than what is needed to provide water to those residents. Because the Mayor won’t allow oversight, checks or balances from the Council, this money can be siphoned off and given to anyone, including political cronies and elected officials’ family members. It can, in short, be used for anything, good or bad. What it’s used for, though, is irrelevant. It’s theft. It is stealing from Mount Vernon’s taxpayers to fund whatever the Mayor decides he wants to spend it on.
This scam has been going on in Chicago for decades and, it appears, that it has found its way to Mount Vernon. Chicago’s former Mayor, Richard Daley, recognized that people tend to scrutinize property tax bills far more carefully than water bills. If questioned about the scheme, he would just say that the money was needed to fix the city’s water infrastructure. No one could prove that wasn’t the case and didn’t have the ability to monitor whether the work was being done at all. In reality, he was just using those funds for his own corrupt purposes, giving spoils to his cronies and friends. It looks like the same thing is happening here today.
If you have examined your Mount Vernon water bill lately, you will notice that over the last couple of years the amount has miraculously doubled or even tripled. There can only be a couple of plausible reasons for the increase. One possibility is that Mount Vernon residents are simply using more water. But, the most current Water Quality Reports issued by the Board of Water Supply actually show that Mount Vernon used less water in 2017 than we did in 2016. So, that doesn’t explain such a huge increase. The second possibility is that the City Council raised the water rate, charging more per 100 cubic feet, and making the same amount of water usage more expensive, but that didn’t happen either. The Council’s water rate has remained the same since 2015 ($3.30 per 100 cubic feet). If the City of New York raised the price for its water (which we are told it did not), that wouldn’t explain it either.
The only other plausible explanation is that the water bills are being manipulated by the Mayor to charge you more for the same usage. For the past six months, I have asked the Board of Water Supply for documents and explanations to justify this increase. To date, I’ve received no paperwork, justification, or reason for the increases in the water bills. They have been unwilling to provide the City Council or the Comptroller with an accounting of expenditures being made out of their department. Indeed, Mayor Thomas even indicated there were about 1 million dollars in excess funds at the end of last year, but refused to turn those funds over to the Comptroller.
Historically, our Water Department’s revenue has exceeded its expenses. Annually, such excess revenue was transferred to the City’s general fund so the Comptroller can balance the city’s books. Now, abusive increases and deliberate overcharging are being used to keep the Water Department and whatever pet project the Mayor wants to fund in the black, never making its way to the city. Lawless behavior by Mayor Thomas’s administration has caused and continues to cause hardship on citizens as well as businesses in the City of Mount Vernon. If you don’t pay the inflated water bills, the Mayor places a lien on your property for failure to pay, charging interest on top of the already outrageous amounts. Liens can turn into foreclosures and eventually seizures of property. This fleecing of our citizens is appalling. What the money is ultimately being used for doesn’t matter. City-sponsored block parties, back-pack giveaways, popular entertainers for City-fest, kickbacks, legal defense funds, 50” flat screen TV’s, family members, new cars, or funneling money to offshore bank accounts? The point is that nobody outside of the Mayor’s office knows. There’s no transparency in the system, and that is extremely dangerous. We can let the Attorney General and the District Attorney decide whether it is also criminal.
What we do know though, is that we are not getting answers from the Mayor’s office, and it’s time we demand some answers. I am asking for an independent forensic audit of the Water Department to be performed by a qualified firm. I am also asking the State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, to investigate the finances of Mount Vernon’s Water Department. I’m asking that a plan be established to ensure that no further over billing takes place and that existing liens associated with water bill non-payment be immediately removed from properties until this investigation is completed. Finally I am asking all Mount Vernon elected officials to stand by me, to help protect the citizens of this city.
I’m going to keep looking into wrongfully collected funds and asking other agencies to do so as well, but I encourage you to reach out to the Mayor directly and ask him yourself. It’s our money. We have a right to know where every penny of it is going.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at ADWCMV@gmail.com.