Delivered By The Honorable Mayor Clinton I. Young, Jr.
Thank you Council President Loretta Hottinger, City Council members William Randolph, Steve Horton, Yuhanna Edwards and the newest member of the City Council Marcus A. Griffith, City Clerk Lisa Copeland and Deputy City Clerk George Brown, and City Comptroller Maureen Walker; ladies and gentlemen—good evening and welcome to my first State of the City Address.
As Mayor of this city I am blessed to have such conscientious partners in government, who are focused solely on the betterment of our city and its citizens. We are pleased to ACKNOWLEDGE the many elected officials and clergy here tonight.
Thank you for your presence. It is a privilege to work with such dedicated individuals at all levels of government. I sincerely appreciate your belief and support of my vision of a better future for Mount Vernon. By working together we will improve services for our young people, boost economic development, and save tax dollars.
Let’s get right to it.
Recent events surrounding the previous administration dictate that I not come before you this evening with the pomp, frills, and excess of previous State of the City addresses. We are here this evening for very serious business. I have too much respect for you to guise our challenges with video and song, and then tell you that all is well. Tonight there’s no smoke…no mirrors. Just a focus on what is real (good and bad) – and what the Young Administration is doing to fix a broken system.
STATE OF THE CITY MESSAGE
On January 1st, I was sworn in as the 20th Mayor of our great city. Then, I inherited a city plagued by severe fiscal crisis, high taxes, mismanagement, federal investigations, alleged criminal activity and an overall declining negative image that has filtered throughout the state. I must admit that we have found that things were and are worse than expected. However, I have found people with the willingness to work hard, who have pledged, like I have, to not give up on this city.
And therefore, tonight, fellow citizens and friends of Mount Vernon, the State of Our City is much stronger than what it was just two months, 25 days, 19 hours and X minutes ago – but nowhere near as strong as it should or could be. In just this short period of time — since January 1st — Mount Vernon is moving toward a robust and dynamic renaissance.
There is a new excitement throughout the city. That excitement is due to our efforts in providing a new, open, responsive and accountable government at City Hall. We are working diligently everyday to change the image of our city. Along with the cooperation of the City Council and all of our partners on the County, State, and Federal levels, I have built a committed team of professionals to help us travel on this journey toward success and greatness. The people of Mount Vernon demand this, the people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
A significant part of what was severely lacking in Mount Vernon city government was clear policies, adequate procedures and, in many cases, professional leaders to carry them out. This lack of oversight and leadership resulted in abuses across the board and drove up taxes unnecessarily. The team of professionals I have assembled are superstars and renowned in their fields. They will run city departments honestly, efficiently, and with the city’s best interest in mind. Make no mistake, these are individuals who all love Mount Vernon and are truly committed to its success.
I would like to take this opportunity to introduce just a few of these superstars, in no particular order of importance.
Our new Planning Commissioner Jeffrey Williams, whom I stole from Westchester County, SORRY, MR. COUNTY EXECUTIVE. Mr. Williams brings an impressive resume and a passion for public service. His many talents as both a Certified Planner and active community member are a much needed addition to the City of Mount Vernon. He is already making great strides in restructuring and improving the department to maximize programs and development projects in our city. He has taken steps to fix our broken Empowerment Zone Program that was in disarray. As a result, many business owners were denied the tax incentives they deserve. We have been working with the State to eliminate this backlog of incomplete work to better serve our business community.
Many of you have already called to commend our new Department of Public Works Commissioner Terrence Horton for his aggressive work ethic and the positive changes he has already instituted. He is a product of the Mount Vernon public schools and brings excellent management and development credentials to the job.
The DPW Department is the heart and soul of the city. Commissioner Horton immediately enacted new cost cutting policies to improve efficiency in our DPW department, and I hope many of you have noticed, barring any substantial wind gusts, your trash cans are standing straight up after we’ve emptied them. Also, many people were surprised that their streets were actually plowed during the last snow storm. The men and women in this department continue to rise up to meet our expectations. Commissioner Horton’s leadership will go a long way keeping our city clean.
I am extremely proud to say that Mount Vernon now has an Inspector General, Mr. Harry Stokes. The Inspector General is charged with investigating complaints of fraud, waste and abuse of offices in City government. The I.G. also recommends corrective action, and where necessary, refer cases to the appropriate authority, whether federal, state, or local agencies. Mr. Stokes is uniquely qualified for the position based on his experience in financial management and as a practicing attorney in both New York State and Washington, D.C.
The Inspector General is 100 percent independent and reports to both the Mayor’s Office and the City Council. I would like to add that, if the opportunity arises at any time, I will work closely with the Inspector General and Corporation Counsel Helen Blackwood to recoup any amount of money possibly owed to the city as a result of any criminal activity or financial impropriety. The people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
Before I go any further, I would like to identify one person who is still with us, and rightfully so, our Water Department Commissioner, Mr. David A. Ford. His decades of service are a model for us all, who have chosen to serve the people of Mount Vernon.
Also, I would like to give special recognition to Lillian Kleinberg, who just last week retired after 54 years of service, having worked under 8 different mayors of this city. Lillian was responsible for establishing many of the basic tenets of development for the city during the 1950’s, as well as many other achievements throughout the years. Thank you, Lillian.
Back to some of the new faces.
Chief of Staff Yolanda Robinson is my right hand. She works around the clock to keep this city running throughout the transition period. Our Chief of Staff brings a wealth of experience and resources to our city. She is the go-to-person to move my administrative agenda forward.
I also established a brain trust of Mount Vernon High School graduates who are bright and dedicated to our city. Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Bochow, a Wake Forest graduate, also has a Masters in Urban Affairs from Hunter College and is very experienced in government operations. Raquel Ledesma will oversee outreach programs to the Latino community and beyond. Helen Aggrey has been a phenomenal addition to our law department. John Boykin is a bright young man, who attended the business program at Cornell University and SUNY Purchase, and will work hard to advance our city.
I would also like to recognize three other young people who are graduates of Mount Vernon High School who work here at City Hall. They are DaMia Harris, who is the Deputy Director of the Youth Bureau; Debbie Burrell, who works in the Youth Bureau as well; and Kasey James, who is one of our newest employees.
I have made the youth of Mount Vernon a top priority of my administration.
As Mayor, I have instituted the basic tenets of my initiative called “Taking Back Our Kids” (TBOK). This initiative is a multi faceted program which will seek to both rehabilitate and redirect our young people who have been neglected by working with various segments of the community. Our children have been talked about in the media, talked down to and reviled in many circles. This must stop. We cannot continue to vilify all Mount Vernon youth for the actions of a few.
Last year, our Mount Vernon High School valedictorian, Rashard Senior, received a full scholarship to Harvard, but kids like this never receive the attention or recognition they deserve. I will work closely with our new and dynamic school superintendent, Dr. Tony Sawyer, to make sure you hear about the success stories in our community.
Our children need our attention and guidance, and they need a place where they can go to feel safe, to be productive, explore their interests, and build upon career goals.
In January, I quickly scrapped the infamous Hip-Hop Museum project that was a waste of time and endless resources, in lieu of a building that will be dedicated to young people in our city. The Youth Empowerment Building will be a place our young people can call their own. We are working with focus groups, sponsors and contractors to bring this building to fruition by next year. This building will house our Youth Board offices, a state of the art television studio, training, education and recreational programs that promote success and achievement.
They also need and deserve to have input in the future of this city. That’s why I have established a Youth Empowerment Council. We have appealed to the youth in our city from every ethnic and socio-economic background to tell us what they need and what we can do to help them be successful. This Council will meet on a regular basis. They will discuss issues that impact them on a daily basis and offer suggestions to make Mount Vernon an even better place to grow up.
Our youth also need positive role models to give them direction in life. Mount Vernon is home to many successful individuals who are willing to give back to their community. Last month, I partnered with one of my cohorts in government, County Legislator Lyndon Williams to host a youth symposium in cooperation with the New York State Future Business Leaders of America & Westchester Black Bar Association. Renowned attorneys and top legal scholars, such as State Supreme Court Judge Sam Walker and our own Mount Vernon Corporation Counsel Helen Blackwood, discussed legal issues that impact young people today. They also encouraged them to excel in school and possibly pursue a career in law.
As a follow up to this important symposium, my administration is working with the Youth Bureau, Judge Brenda Dowey-Rodriguez and Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore – a product of Mount Vernon — to develop a Youth Court. This program has been very successful in other communities, including Redhook, Brooklyn. Youth Courts promote community service initiatives and restorative justice practices to help our young people gain a greater understanding of the roles they play in our community.
We are also working to cultivate a better relationship between police and our youth. The STEP-UP program helps us accomplish that goal. The Mount Vernon Youth Bureau, under the leadership of Director Camille Banks-Lee, in cooperation with our police department facilitates the STEP-UP youth violence reduction program. Our community is faced with young people, particularly young African American men, who have lost their way and participating in risky behaviors and failing in school. The STEP-UP program works directly with these youths to engage them in their civic responsibility to their family, community and more importantly themselves. As a county legislator, I fought for additional funding in upwards of 60-thousand dollars to expand this program this year.
I have also enlisted the help of business owners, like Robert DeBenedictis, and corporate neighbors, through people like Roberta James, to reach out to our young people for internships and jobs. Our children need us, and we need them. We must take our children back from the gangs, drugs and all the nefarious activities that stunt their progress and lead them down the wrong path. My administration is committed to providing viable opportunities for our children to be all they can be. We must help define our children and not leave it up to society, BET or the news media. The people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
I’m proud to say that many of our high school and college graduates have chosen careers in law enforcement and serve in the Mount Vernon Police Department. Under the leadership of Police Commissioner David Chong, our police department is second to none. I’m happy to report that violent crime is down this time over last year. But, the police department remains vigilant in protecting the citizens of Mount Vernon. My administration, along with Councilman Yuhanna Edwards, is working vigorously with the police department to ensure our streets, homes, schools and playgrounds are safe.
Our officers are doing a phenomenal job despite many challenges. The training and leadership our police officers demonstrate everyday, is incredible and beyond belief. We have one of the most racially and ethnically diverse police departments in Westchester County — and I’m proud of that fact. The men and women who serve on the police force understand our community and should be commended. Unfortunately, there are also those who pay the ultimate price for going above and beyond the call of duty.
On January 25, 2008, the City of Mount Vernon lost one of our own, Detective Christopher Ridley while trying to stop a violent assault in White Plains. Our city and police department continue to mourn with the Ridley, Rucker and Bouche family.
To honor Christopher Ridley’s heroism, he was posthumously promoted to Detective. Detective Ridley was also nationally recognized during a ceremony in which the United States Flag of Honor was raised at City Hall to commemorate his bravery and heroism.
I submit to you tonight, that my administration will work with all levels of law enforcement, government, and the community to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.
Gun violence and the proliferation of illegal handguns have besieged many major cities, including Mount Vernon. Last year on Halloween night Neville Webb — a hard working family man — was senselessly gunned down allegedly by a teen aged perpetrator. We need to put our resources into initiatives to stem the use of guns and promote better conflict resolution in our city.
But it’s easier said than done. Earlier this month, I stood with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer to fight against President Bush’s proposed cuts of federal law enforcement grants. I will also join New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other major city leaders at the 2008 Mayors Against Illegal Guns National Summit next month in Washington, DC. Mayors from around the country will come together to share ideas and strategies for combating illegal guns.
QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES/TAXES
We need to make sure that our resources to battle crime and corruption are used wisely and efficiently. Unfortunately, our city has been strangled by unprofessional conduct, waste, and very little financial oversight in certain city departments. As a result, property taxes in Mount Vernon have gone up, while city revenues have gone down.
Consequently, we may face a substantial budget deficit at the end of this year, due to mismanagement and union contracts negotiated behind closed doors in bad faith. These factors — as well as proposed cuts on the state and federal levels — may take a tremendous toll on our budget and ultimately taxpayers.
This all leads me to our problem with the federal government. It’s been widely reported that Mount Vernon owes the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Agency or HUD millions of dollars as a result of again mismanagement and a lack of oversight. It’s just amazing to me that where no red flags anywhere in the city. The system of checks and balances failed miserably. As a result, overpayments and mounting penalties are certain to cause serious hardships for our city. My administration is focused and committed to resolving this issue with a minimum burden on taxpayers. Currently, we are working with HUD to finally bring this nightmare to an end once and for all.
It’s time for belt tightening. I have instructed my commissioners to reduce overtime and cut spending across the board. We are also auditing every department and city entity to eliminate waste and maximize productivity. This year, we will institute new technology and policies to ensure accountability and oversight.
I understand that we must work hard to restore your faith in government. It’s not going to be easy because many policies and procedures were virtually ignored or non-existent. I ask the Comptroller and City Council to work with me to implement new procedures to cut taxes and improve government efficiency. The people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
I also pledge to work with our federal and state delegations to bring additional funding home to Mount Vernon. Earlier this year, I met with Senate Democratic Leader Malcolm Smith, Senators Jeff Klein and Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Assemblyman Gary Pretlow and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. I have also reached out to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Congressman Eliot Engel. They all truly care about our city and have pledged to help us reach our goals.
As elected officials, we have to remember that we work for the people — and not the other way around. That’s why I have stepped up our constituent services. When a constituent calls our office during business hours, they will get someone who will listen to their concern with respect and follow up.
One of the most important functions government performs is being able to connect with those it serves.
City Hall, through my administration is open to the public every day, especially when we’re here in the office. There aren’t enough 15-minute scheduling blocks in the day, but I’ll have to take that up with a higher power. Everyone who comes to City Hall with an issue is treated fairly and they are getting answers to their questions. Now, the answer may not always be the one they are looking for, but they are treated with the personal customer service that they deserve.
Just as an example, many of you have called my office complaining about the Recyclable Pick-Up Calendar, that it is not readable and not meeting your needs. I am happy to report that I am working with new DPW Commissioner Horton to make the schedule easier to read and most importantly make it so you are not left holding onto your recyclable material for two weeks. Expect this change very soon.
Our duty to our citizens goes beyond the 8 hours City Hall is open for business.
On Tuesday night, March 11th, I hosted the first “Different Neighborhoods, ONE Mount Vernon” meeting here in the City Council Chambers, which included myself and every single one of our commissioners and department heads, the first of many monthly community meetings. More than 150 of our citizens turned out to hear about the various city departments. We engaged in positive dialogue on improving our city. Judging from the turnout for this first meeting, there is a genuine desire among our citizens to improve the quality of life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Council President Hottinger and Councilman Steven Horton for their guidance and continued support of this initiative.
We need to hear from our citizens so that we can provide the best services possible. For those who were unable to attend, don’t worry we’ll be coming to your neighborhood very soon. Look for future meetings to be uploaded on our website.
Finally, government can connect with its citizens through the Internet. My administration is working on a complete overhaul of the Mount Vernon website and providing E-government services. Through this new interactive website, that will be launched on May 1st of this year, you will have the ability to pay taxes, parking tickets, water bills and fees online, as well as access and download many departmental forms 24 hours a day. We’re making government more accessible to you, on your schedule — not ours.
Our new approach to technology will connect Mount Vernon to the world. We are also reaching out beyond our borders for cultivate education and economic opportunities abroad. Just last week, I signed a sister City Agreement with the Vice Mayor’s delegation from Yangquan, China. The delegation was treated to a performance by students at the Grimes School that done completely in Chinese. Vice Mayor said the children’s performance reminded him of his own childhood in China. I thank Principal Frances Lightsy and her staff for coordinating this outstanding performance.
The delegation also dined at local eateries and toured of the city. We look forward to establishing video-conferencing to connect school children in Mount Vernon and China. We’re also working on a business exchange symposium to bring Chinese business owners to Mount Vernon.
We have a similar agreement with Poços de Caldas in Brazil. Just this year I welcomed Brazilian Ambassador Alfredo Graça Lima here at Mount Vernon City Hall. In addition, I was proud to welcome the Mayor of Mongrassano, Italy Vito Frank Barbagallo, who was born in Mount Vernon, but returned to the birthplace of his parents when he was nine. Speaking with him about his memories of our city, I was reminded of why Mount Vernon is such a great place to grown up.
IMPROVING INFRASTRUCTURE FROM THE INSIDE…OUT
As elected officials for the city, we owe it to our taxpayers and families, especially our children, to fix a broken city government. We have inherited a city infrastructure that has been neglected, huge capital improvement projects and even minor maintenance and repairs have been delayed and even ignored. My administration is taking great steps to improve the infrastructure of our city. I will officially be appointing a Capital Projects Committee, where I look forward to the leadership of Councilman Bill Randolph, to review our infrastructure, identify priority projects, and make recommendations for improvement. In doing so, we show surrounding communities and possible investors that we care about the direction in which our city is going.
Petrillo Plaza will be overhauled into a user friendly transit hub in the city. Again, this City/County partnership will improve traffic safety and business in the area. As a county legislator, I brokered more than 10 million dollars toward this project, and together with the County Executive, Board Chairman Ryan, and Legislator Williams made it possible to utilize millions in federal grant dollars. We will break ground this Spring.
Park Avenue Bridge
Right next to Petrillo Plaza, the MTA has in place, a plan to replace the Park Avenue bridge beginning next Spring. It will disturb traffic in the area for a few months, but will be worth it in the end to have a brand new bridge.
I would also like to say that we are taking a look at all of our roads, sidewalks, and bridges to see where we can improve transit conditions. We are also exploring the resynchronization of our traffic lights to reduce congestion, but I ask for your patience as we make these strides.
My administration is currently seeking Federal Funding for our fire headquarters and improvements to our Public Library. Our fire Department is one of the busiest in Westchester County that averages approximately 1 and a half fires per month, in addition to other emergency calls. It’s amazing to me the fire department has been under-funded and neglected in years passed, and as a result firefighters must work with outdated equipment and an antiquated fire headquarters that is falling apart and in desperate need of replacement.
Last year, the main fire headquarters located at 470 East Lincoln Avenue was closed for mold infestation by the U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA. As a result, the City is paying approximately $10,000 per month in storage fees and trailers to house fire operations and housing. These conditions have dramatically reduced our ability to respond adequately to emergencies and are very costly for the city to repair. Despite these challenges, our fire department is still one of the best in Westchester. My administration is working with our federal delegation to secure funding to rebuild our fire headquarters from the ground up.
Finally, on a more positive note, we are on the verge of breaking ground on a new state-of-the-art stadium at Memorial Field. This new stadium is a collaboration with our government partners in Westchester County Executive Andy Spano, County Board Chairman Bill Ryan, and County Legislator Lyndon Williams. My administration inherited a field that was dilapidated and deteriorating with each passing day. The new Memorial Field will be the crown jewel of Westchester County outdoor athletic facilities. Thanks to our many partners in government, our children will no longer play on a decrepit field, but a field of dreams.
A NEW VISION OF EFFICIENCY THROUGH GREEN TECHNOLOGY
My administration is working hard to explore how Green Initiatives can play a part in the re-birth of Mount Vernon. We are working collaboratively with all levels of government to bring Mount Vernon to the cutting edge of technology and efficiency. From improving air quality to making buildings more energy efficient, the next few years we’ll see the first steps of a Mount Vernon Going Green.
With the ever-rising price of gasoline, dependent cars are becoming too expensive to operate and maintain. Currently, I am examining a proposal that will begin to integrate Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles that get 150 miles per gallon into the city’s fleet. This will begin to bring down our consumption of gasoline, an extremely necessary environmentally and financially responsible decision that needs to be made.
I are also discussing a Solar Energy pilot program that would put solar panels on top of city-owned buildings to reduce operating costs. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to think about how they can reduce their energy consumption, whether it’s purchasing a hybrid vehicle or replacing their light bulbs with energy efficient bulbs, every little bit counts. The people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
As we continue to progress toward becoming a strong infrastructural city, more and more investors will want to lend a helping hand in improving our city’s image, creating real jobs, and strengthening our local economy. However, none of this can happen without a Citywide Master Plan for Development, which will ultimately see an end to “development simply for the sake of development.” We need smart development in our city – and refrain from giving away our community assets to those who want to make a fast buck at our expense.
Master Plan Committee -> Smart Development…
The City has not had a master plan in over forty years. We are at a juncture where we have an excitement about Mount Vernon in the air. The potential is still there for real long term success, but there must be a special cooperation between City Hall and each of the communities in Mount Vernon for our Master Plan to be a success. That is why I have formed a Master Plan Committee, which includes Janet Snyder (my former opponent) who has a wealth of development knowledge. We all need to have input in this Master Plan to ensure long term success for Mount Vernon. And, with the help of our newest City Council member Marcus Griffith, who has a great interest in moving our Master Plan forward, I expect to make this city the best city in Westchester County.
Since I took office in January, I have met with at least 30 developers who are interested in our city. For they recognize the potential and possibilities that exist in Mount Vernon. We need more work-force housing for teachers, firefighters and police officers, as well as improve our retail corridors to boost the tax-base.
We are moving toward a comprehensive plan for development in this city, but already we are moving toward a significant affordable housing, mixed-use project on 3rd Street, as well as projects on Gramatan Avenue & near Hartley Park that are going to reinvigorate our central downtown area. I will say this, that whatever development comes into this city will be obligated through my directive to create jobs for people in Mount Vernon, reinvest into their surrounding neighborhood, and involve local businesses…because the people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
LOOKING FORWARD TO A CITY OF PRIDE AND GREATNESS
Finally tonight, I have created a new motto for our city, I certainly hope that you like it…it is a true statement of purpose, a statement that speaks to the spirit of each and every one of us. That statement is: “Mount Vernon…A City of Pride and Greatness.” We all have pride in Mount Vernon. There is not a soul in this city who could deny that we love living here, but perhaps in recent years, the pride that we have had for our beloved city shielded our eyes from the path to glory. No longer! We are back on the path to greatness. The people of Mount Vernon deserve better.
I am your Mayor, but this is OUR city. Together we are going to meet these challenges, because we are ONE Mount Vernon.
Thank you, and God Bless You All.