In Part 1 of the series, we talked about the dangers and bad actors that lurk in the background of “economic development.” Part 2 addressed the giveaways and misplaced priorities associated with the current version of the Mount Vernon Industrial Development Agency (MVIDA). This column is the final installment of my series on Responsible Development, which, we’ll look to pull everything together and chart a path forward.
It’s no surprise to anyone looking around this city or reading the press, Mount Vernon faces a number of tough challenges ahead. Whether from environmental orders or Federal lawsuits or the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility at the hands of this administration, we need to be focused on getting our financial house in order. Unfortunately, these challenges are being exacerbated by outrageous tax giveaways by the MVIDA. PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) are weapon of choice that has become a cancer that is eating away at the financial stability of Mount Vernon and the safety of our citizens. By robbing our city of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, these PILOTs negatively impact property taxes, crime, sewers, and schools. Wealthy developers walk away with huge gains, while we eat the cost of their misguided developments – for decades!
How did we get here? For years, County social programs have been steering at-risk and high-challenge residents from surrounding areas of Westchester County and New York City to Mount Vernon, leaving our city on the brink of collapse. Former County Executives enacted policies that place the overwhelming number of social programs, particularly residential programs, in our city. Affluent municipalities have refused to share the burden equally, and Mount Vernon has been used as a dumping ground. There’s no other way to put it. Our recent mayors have been complicit in helping other communities avoid their obligations with our taxpayer dollars, neglecting the needs of our people in the process. It’s just shameless.
In 2009, Westchester County settled a housing discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, agreeing to develop affordable housing throughout the County. And, a majority of that housing has been centered right here, funded by PILOTs, giving the County plenty of cover. But, years of unfair County practices have left Mount Vernon saddled with a disproportionate number of Westchester County’s homeless, mental health sufferers, substance abusers, drug treatment centers, parolees, and sex offenders. There are for example, 1,000 homeless children in Mount Vernon schools right now, increasing the challenges beyond merely educating these kids. There is no way our neighbors are dealing with numbers like this.
It doesn’t end there. On a per capita basis, Mount Vernon has the highest number of homeless, foreclosures, murders, burglary, and the highest property taxes per dollar of property value in New York State. Further, Mount Vernon also has the highest number of sex offenders per capita; we house more sex offenders than Chicago and Los Angeles – yet we have no established sex offender or homeless task forces. The Modern, the multi-colored poster child of the MVIDA on Macquesten Parkway, received a 40-year, $40 million PILOT. Part of the deal was to place mentally ill patients in more than 20 units. These tenants are unsupervised, and some are without medication, while walking neighborhood streets.
Mount Vernon is the seventh most densely populated city in the nation, but we continue to build high-risk residential housing to support New York City and County residents. Poor planning, corruption and questionable PILOTs are destroying our city and undermining our ability to supply basic services to our residents. The Mayor, who controls the MVIDA, must stop the residential PILOT handout. There must be a priority on caring for the needs of our current citizens. Social programs, particularly residential programs, must be spread equally and our neighbors must pull their own weight. We have paid a tremendous price for the misguided “development” at the hands of the MVIDA through these unwarranted PILOTs. We must stop the assault on the taxpayers of Mount Vernon.
Responsible Development means setting real priorities with our development dollars. 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 commercial store isn’t using the city’s schools but a high-rise apartment building certainly 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 noses our taxpayers.
Mount Vernon severely lacks the commercial infrastructure necessary to support a city our size. Movie theaters, car dealerships, hotels, catering halls, supermarkets, etc. A taxpayer in Mount Vernon should not have to spend his or her money in another city, simply because ours lacks basic commercial amenities. That’s money that is lining the pockets of the same cities that are dumping their problem citizens on us. We need to bring back businesses to support the “City of Homes.” Without that self-sustaining commercial infrastructure, real estate values will stagnate or more likely fall.
Responsible Development aims to ensure that every deal with the City of Mount Vernon to build here is a good deal, meaning the development brings more to this City than it takes from it. The “takers” can go somewhere else. With Responsible Development, they will. And, businesses who are looking for smart, forward-looking government partners will replace them. Right now, those legitimate developers are on the sidelines because they won’t play the “kickback” and “crony” game demanded of them by the current leadership of the MVIDA. With Responsible Development, we’ll get them off the sidelines, moving dirt and building useful beneficial projects for this City. We’ll replace the current string of lose-lose projects we’re dealing with now with win-win opportunities for this City.
It’s time to stop trying to improve our skyline by killing our bottom line.