I’ve received a number of questions in the past few days and wanted to provide you with an update on what has happened with regard to the Water Department. If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ll know the story, but if not, I will summarize it briefly here. Mount Vernon’s residents were shocked to see dramatic increases in their recent water bills, some having doubled or tripled for the same water usage. As a City Councilman I was just as shocked as many of you, knowing that the City Council is responsible for setting Mount Vernon’s water rates, and we haven’t changed those rates in three years. So, how did this happen?
Someone in the Water Department or the Mayor’s administration took it upon himself or herself to raise the water rates without the authority of the City Council. Mount Vernon citizens’ are now paying an increase of about 43%. The Water Department raised the “overage” rates while reducing the “base” usage amount, which means you pay more money for the same or even less water, resulting in massive increases for Mount Vernon’s residents. The worst part of this new “tax” is that it hurts citizens on fixed incomes, particularly our seniors. Moreover, the expenditures from the Water Department are not reviewed through the regular process like many other City bills and could be used improperly for anything, including “paying the Mayor’s personal legal bills” as suggested recently by the Attorney General’s office.
I brought this complaint to the attention of the Thomas administration many times. Councilman Griffith and I even held a press conference detailing what we saw as disturbing irregularities occurring at the Water Department. The City Council simply cannot get any answers out of the Mayor’s department heads or his office. The citizens of Mount Vernon are entitled to transparency in their government, and the City’s Charter mandates that the Water Department must provide the City Council with answers to our questions. Despite that, those answers never came.
Much like the situation with Memorial Field, the Council faced a crossroad. We could continue to let the Mayor and his administration act outside of the law, or we could stop him from doing so in court. I brought the latter option to the Council for consideration, as the consequences for our citizens were too severe to ignore. That’s the people’s money and it needs to be given back to them. Unfortunately, as these things sometimes go, I could not get the entire Council on board to file a lawsuit similar to what we did with Memorial Field. But, I felt the issue was too important, so I decided to act independently of the Council.
Last week, in my official capacity as a public officer and as a trustee of the public’s funds, I filed an Article 78 petition in Westchester County Supreme Court for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and a preliminary injunction against Mount Vernon’s Water Department, seeking, among other things, to halt any further collection of unauthorized water usage bills, to preserve evidence, and to establish a plan to get a refund or credit to people who have been overcharged.
As the lawsuit claims, Mount Vernon’s residents, especially its seniors and most vulnerable citizens, have been subjected to a “shadow tax” by the present administration in the form of outrageous and unauthorized water bills. The revenue generated in the Water Department is being spent without any oversight and on expenses unrelated to the Water Department.
Before filing suit, for almost a year, I issued multiple official requests for clarification and transparency from the Water Department, all of which were ignored. As a trustee of the public’s money, I could not sit idle any longer and felt the only way to protect the taxpayer was to initiate legal action – especially when there are millions of dollars at stake.
Justice Susan M. Cacace agreed and issued an Order to Show Cause as to why she should not issue a permanent injunction against the Water Department at a hearing coming up on November 20, 2018. The burden is now on the Water Department to show up and prove they acted in line with the law – which they cannot do. Even the Water Department’s public statements are an admission they hiked the rates. They have even lied about turning the excess money over to the Comptroller to pay the City’s bills since the Mayor came into office. That amount, according to estimates by the Comptroller may exceed $3 million, an outrageous amount to be kept from the taxpayers.
I take my fiduciary obligations to Mount Vernon’s taxpayers very seriously, and I call upon other members of Mount Vernon’s government to stand with me in demanding answers from the Thomas administration and, particularly, the Water Department. For an administration that uses every opportunity to claim it is transparent, it has steadfastly refused to answer all requests from the City Council and the Comptroller about issues that cut to the heart of the public’s faith in its elected leaders. I also renew my call for a complete and independent investigation by State and County law enforcement into the activities at the Water Department.
While I understand the people of Mount Vernon are tired of hearing about lawsuits between its various members of government, I am confident they will understand the necessity and urgency of needing to move this way in this case. Sometimes, the rules we learned way back on the playground have application as we move through adult life. In a sense, the Water Department has been stealing our lunch money for too long. Sometimes, the only way to handle a bully is to sock him in the mouth. Regrettable, maybe, but, it’s usually effective.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at ADWCMV@gmail.com.