I’m sure neither of them would appreciate being likened to the other, but it’s hard not to see a bunch of parallels between Mount Vernon’s Mayor, Richard Thomas, and President Donald Trump. Those similarities are all the more striking in the context of recent fights about government finances. Both the Federal government shutdown and the recent budget crisis in Mount Vernon have shown what happens when arrogant, imperious executives who want total control to spend beyond their means come up against an opposition that disagrees with their approach and their methods.
Setting apart their obvious age differences, the other similarities are eerie. Both serve as chief executives in their government; some shady characters surround both; both have drawn a lot of attention from prosecutors in recent months. Both have made a lot of promises they can’t keep. Both are quick to file lawsuits when anyone objects to their agenda. And, of course, both are prone to throwing temper tantrums via social media.
Also, as the Federal government shutdown and the Mount Vernon budget crisis have made clear, both Trump and Thomas (TNT) have demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of how government, particularly government finance, works. Both of them profess to be experts and, as it turns out, both of them are wrong. Here are a few facts to illustrate the point.
Fact #1 – The Budget is Written by the Legislature. Contrary to the lies being put out, neither the Mayor nor the President is in charge of the budget. That belongs to the Congress and, here in Mount Vernon, to the City Council. At best, all the executive branch can do is to “recommend” a budget for next year. They issue, basically, a “wish list,” and the legislative branch drafts what will ultimately be the budget for the year. The separation of powers doctrine in US governmental systems dictates that the people spending the money are not the same ones responsible for authorizing its spending. This is an important check on the power of the executive branch. Who doesn’t like this basic civics fact? People like Thomas and Trump, of course.
Mayor Thomas keeps suggesting that the City Council should “pass his budget.” What he really means is that the City Council should rubber-stamp his irresponsible spending. That is not going to happen.
Fact #2 – Passing a Budget is Not the End of the Process. The budget is designed to estimate the financial needs of the government for the coming year. And, yes, it contains estimates. It’s never a precise, final document. Things come up in the year, just like they do in your own household, that you hadn’t budgeted for and yet still need to be paid. In that sense, it’s a guideline only. The City Council can make changes and authorize spending not contained in the budget throughout the year. This is something that Mayor Thomas, as a former “Council member”, knows all about. But, it is just a bald-faced lie to claim that, if something is not in the budget the City will not pay it for.
Some things, like fixing Mount Vernon’s bridges, have already had money ear-marked. Mayor Thomas has made a recent statement that the 2019 budget doesn’t include funding for bridge repair. First, the MTA is mostly responsible for allocating those monies. Second, we have already secured over $3 million from State and Federal sources to fund Mount Vernon’s portion. That happened in 2014. It’s been Mayor Thomas who has been unable to push along these bridge fixes in his entire tenure as mayor. Remember the 14th Avenue Bridge closure that Mayor Thomas said was going to be re-opened in March 2019? That’s two weeks away. Go see for yourself if that’s going to happen. Short answer: it’s not. This is not a budget issue. This is a failure of leadership issue.
Fact #3 – They Want Control, Not Collaboration. The reality is that Thomas and Trump have identified some very expensive things they want to pay for and, if the money is in the budget, they have complete control over how that money is spent. If it’s not in the budget, they need to come to the legislature and work collaboratively to accomplish those things. For Trump, it’s a border wall. For Thomas, it’s a waterfront or a ferry service to LaGuardia or a domed stadium for Memorial Field or any of a host of other pie-in-the-sky projects that will never amount to anything. Both of them know that, if they had to justify the value of these projects on their own, it would be very difficult or impossible. Which is why they want the money in the budget.
Fact #4 – Not Everything Belongs in the Budget. This is another fact that Thomas and Trump fail to appreciate. The budget is designed to approximate the financial needs of the government for everyday activities – fire, police, DPW, administration, etc. It is NOT designed to allocate money for big-ticket projects that are built once and do not recur every year. Those are considered “capital improvements” and must be dealt with separately, via appropriate legislation. Things like rebuilding the sewers or remediating the mound of dirt at Memorial Field are not appropriate budget line items generally.
Trump is not going to build a border wall every year. Thomas is not going to fix the sewers every year. These are distinct projects that require their own planning and their own budgets. Neither Thomas nor Trump have the attention span necessary to sit down and get these things accomplished in collaboration with the people who need to approve that spending. To do so would diminish their belief that they are completely in charge of the government. That misguided belief notwithstanding; the structure of the government is specifically designed to avoid having a single person in charge.
Fact #5 – Lies and Temper Tantrums are Not Leadership. The simple fact remains: the executive branch is limited in its power. Thomas and Trump do not like that fact. They spend a lot of time and effort trying to change that fact, time they should have spent making their case for the projects they want. Border security is not necessarily a partisan issue; there are plenty of aspects of that issue on which both sides agree. Compromises can be achieved when that happens and the same goes for Memorial Field. The City Council wants to see Memorial Field rebuilt and available for the citizens of Mount Vernon. But, it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t invite fraud or corruption and makes sense for the taxpayers. Mayor Thomas keeps showing people the picture of a domed stadium for $120 million dollars that “corporate investors” are ready to pay for. Where are these investors? If Magic Johnson and Puff Daddy are so interested in funding Memorial Field, I encourage the Mayor to bring them to the next Council Meeting and detail their ideas. The reality is this: No outside investors exist. Mayor Thomas is just inventing a narrative that doesn’t exist.
And, that brings us to another similarity between Thomas and Trump: they are both willing to shamelessly lie to people. About their abilities; their programs; the “conspiracies” out to get them; their connections to shady individuals; their personal finances and their popularity.
Voters are going to have to wait until 2020 to make their position known on Trump. But, in Mount Vernon, the voters don’t have to wait that long. This year, voters are going to be able to tell Mount Vernon’s Donald Trump that they are just tired of the lies, the petty games, and the irresponsible leadership.
Mount Vernon didn’t elect a king and neither did the rest of the country. Voters may understandably feel some sense of regret about both of these choices, but that’s the genius of the system. Let's stop the fighting and get to work!
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at ADWCMV@gmail.com.