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INTERVIEW: Andre Wallace reflects on his legacy

Before you were in Mount Vernon politics you owned a business here in Mount Vernon. Can you talk about your experience as an entrepreneur and how it lead you to politics? Basically I’m in construction and development. I’ve been doing that for 25 years. I got into politics because as an MBE and DBE I found out there were not many of us in the construction industry getting the big jobs or on the big jobs, I was one of very few. I always questioned why aren’t there more minorities in these positions. I opened up a school for the construction trade and it became certified and accredited. I started teaching youth in the community, taking them off the street and off the corners, training them and putting them to work and that started the whole thing. I was talking to the government, elected officials, and the developers to make sure that people in our community benefit from all that’s going on because it is their tax dollars and usually they’re left out. People were like “he’s a community activist” so that led me into it one step at a time because I was always outspoken. I believe exactly what Martin Luther King said” Injustice anywhere is Injustice everywhere”. This started me into government because I used to come to the city council meetings to express my frustration at how people are being treated in the city. One day I went and I said you know this is the fourth time I’ve been here and you keep saying you’re going to do something but it’s been seven or eight months. Tell you what, I hear there’s an election coming up, I’m going to run and do it myself. I ran against the party. I’m a Democrat but they didn’t choose me, so I ran outside of the party and I won. It started with the city council seat and then I moved up to the City Council President and now I’m Mayor. All of this stuff in four years and it’s been an amazing and fun ride.

What are your plans after leaving office and how will you continue to serve the City of Mount Vernon? I’m going back to my construction development and really work my business. I’m still going to be involved in a community and seeing where I can help and where I can fit in. I’m still going to hold people accountable, feet to the fire and make sure things are being done and that the people are getting the services that they deserve for the taxes they pay. I’ve always been a person that when I see something wrong I have to say something. I don’t mind being the first one on the line screaming about it, whether people are standing there with me or not. I’m going to be there if it’s wrong, because wrong is wrong.

You landed in the Mayor’s office in a whirlwind but you said “you’ll get a mop, broom and a bucket” and began cleaning up the city’s financial state? Tell us some of the ways you kept that promise? It was about streamlining government and getting things back in place. We had no bond rating because we lost it. We were able to go back and close the URA books which no one seemed to be able to close for years. We’ve closed 2016, 2017 and 2018 books. Now the city can move forward. We weeded out the corruption in the Water Department, city government, and the IDA. I put in a lot of safeguards now so it can’t become a slush fund or a black box operation anymore. All of those things have been put in place so it’s difficult now for anybody to do anything because we were able to point out the corruption. We’ve got the water department running smoothly, I’m happy with the amnesty program because we gave some of the people some of their money back. Now we are preparing to have a press conference for the 3% tax cut we’re giving from the water dept, money back to the people because once we streamlined we knew what the operating expenses are. At this point we are going to streamline it and take only what is supposed to be taken and not other stuff where you can build a hidden fund. I did the same thing with the city budget. I’ve even told the incoming Mayor, look if you follow the program that I have laid out you have a blueprint by the end of next year you should have a zero budget going forward for the next few years. It just has to be done right.

As Mayor you used your platform to address the “irresponsible development” happening in Mount Vernon. How can the average residents hold leadership accountable for making deals that undermine the city? People have to stay involved. You have to get involved. You have to be outspoken and you have to be able to read what’s going on. People have to come to some of the City Council meetings, watch the Board of Estimates Contract meeting. Come in so you can know what’s going on. Anybody can come into any one of the meetings. The Commissioner meetings are held the first Monday of the month. You can come in, sit down and see what’s going on in the department and around the city. You also have the Real Estate Committee Board meeting, the Planning Board meeting, the Zoning Board meeting. These meetings are mandatory. I’ve been trying to make things transparent by putting things on the website.

Can you explain the original intent of the M.V.I.D.A. (Mount Vernon Industrial Development Agency) and how it currently functions? IDA means Industrial Development Agency. It’s about bringing business into the city, but it’s been used differently for a very long time. They’ve been using the money to give out P.I.L.O.T. programs for low-income housing. The money gets into developers hands which hasn’t been a good way to use the money. It should be used to enhance the city, to create more revenue for the city and take the burden off the taxpayer. Why give it to the developer whose just going to put up a housing project, instead make 4th Avenue look like Ridge Hill or some of these other amazing places. Drum up business for the area that over time is going to give you back tax revenue which is going to create more jobs and it’s going to give sales tax revenue, payroll tax revenue, employee tax revenue all these things that generate the money you need to operate the city in a proper fashion. This is not being done because people are not looking long term they are short sighted and we don’t understand our true value of where we are and the location that we have. Mount Vernon is the best spot in all of Westchester County. We are the first stop outside of New York City. We should have hotels and everything here already. I call Mount Vernon the sixth borough.

Can you explain to the MV residents how the P.I.L.O.T.S. (Payment in lieu of taxes) funding programs actually work from the developers standpoint? The Developers come in and they get these tax incentives. We’ve been giving them out for 30 to 40 years. Every time you give out a pilot for 30 years it sets us back 30 years. Instead of them paying it takes them 30 years to catch to pay the amount of taxes they are supposed to take. It’s really like a tax incentive to come here and build and invest, but we don’t need that. We give them out ridiculously. We need to back up off of it and just say hey if you want to build here then build. When you give these PILOTS you’re not getting that money coming in. Remember someone has to pay for all the additional school kids.
They say this project is only going to generate 10 kids in your school system but then you turn around and its 40 kids or 50 kids coming out of that project. Guess who’s paying for it, the homeowners. We have to raise their taxes depending on the needs of the kids and some are special needs kids. We are giving this money away free. Some of these projects we don’t have the capacity because we are giving away more buildings and who is going to pick up their garbage? Now we need more garbage trucks, more police, more fire trucks and where are you going to get the money from? I’ve ordered three new fire engines and it cost the taxpayers zero dollars because I got it all from grant money. Everything I’ve been doing is coming from grant money and I showed them taking taxpayer money is the easy way out, do some work and you can find government grants and use that.

The taxes are really high in Mount Vernon, were you able to put in place anything that would help lower property taxes? No because of the short time that I had. You will need at least a year to really put a halt to the high taxes. Then you start to work from there increasing revenue. The reason why the taxes are so high is because the tax base is 88% from the homeowners. We only have 12% from business and we need to increase that. Business’ pay a high utilization tax. The reason why a house on Mundy Lane on this side of the street in Mount Vernon will cost you $16,500 and across the street in the Bronx will cost you $4000 is because in New York City you have Wall Street and other corporations. All these businesses are paying taxes so the homeowners are not taxed as much. Our base is coming from the actual home owner which is the worst because it’s not sustainable. It’s only a matter of time before the home owners are taxed out. We have to increase the business base. You have to get that 12% to about at least 38% but if we could get it to 50% that would be amazing. Therefore instead of us homeowners paying $100 we can pay $50 and the other $50 is coming from the business.

What do you want your legacy to be? My Legacy as mayor would be the Mayor that got things done. I’m about people, not politics. People need to know I’m about service before self. If I can make a difference in the lives of others, that’s all that matters to me. That’s the most important thing.