Mount Vernon – In the blistering cold, Friday morning, Mayor Richard Thomas held a press conference at the 3rd Street Firehouse (50 W. 3rd Street), to announce he is moving forward with sending five firefighter recruits to the Westchester County Fire Academy despite no funding in the 2016 city budget.
The 2016 Mount Vernon Budget has money set aside for six new firefighters, but Mayor Thomas wants to restore the five firefighters who’s class was cancelled last year by then Mayor Ernest D. Davis, in addition to the six firefighter the budget allows for, sending a total of eleven new firefighters.
The Thomas Administration says the Council and Comptroller have chosen public safety over politics and will be sending a full class of firefighters to the academy.
During the Tuesday, February 9th City Council Work Session, Mayor Thomas submitted options to restore funding to the Fire Department for the five unfunded firefighter position. One of these options included transferring money from the Contingency Fund (A 1990.493). Thomas further suggested the public safety meets the requirements.
Thomas’ suggestion was met with opposition from Comptroller Maureen Walker and several, if not all of the Council. Walker stated the Contingency Fund was monies set aside for when it comes time for the city to negotiate raises for both the Fire and Police Departments, among other unforeseen situations. Walker explained in the Work Session that transferring funds for the addition firefighter positions will leave the city unable to negotiate in good faith with the unions.
Councilwoman Lisa A. Copeland made it clear in the meeting everyone in the room would love to fully staff the fire department, but there was simply no money in the budget to do so. Councilman J. Yuhanna Edwards suggested Thomas accept the six positions that are budgeted for now and lets see what we can do next year. There were also suggestions of retiring firefighters that are out on disability and unable to return to work and free up both money and positions for the firefighters Thomas is requesting and possible more. Thomas responded by saying the time the process would take, would make any eligible recruits unable to make the academy deadline to enlist.
Thomas and the Council debated the matter further, at the Wednesday, February 10th City Council Meeting during the legislative portion of the meeting. Unable to come to a common ground, Thomas felt he had no choice but to hold a press conference to insinuate that the Comptroller and the Council are playing politics with health and safety with the people of Mount Vernon. This is a brief wrap-up or summary. There are so many moving parts, there was no way to cover it all here and now!
The press conference provided more questions than answers. If the council and comptroller say there is no money and the mayor hires the eleven firefighters, where does the money come from to pay the salaries of the additional five firefighters? If the comptroller was to transfer the money from the contingency fund and when the union negotiations come to an end, how does the city pay the raises to the fire and police departments? Does this move make firefighters have to choose between much-needed new recruits and raises? Does the mayor have the power to overturn the decision of the comptroller and the council? These are just a few of the questions the press conference brings to mind.
Now as an editor, who sat through the Work Session meeting Tuesday, the City Council meeting, Wednesday and the press conference Friday, and has personally spoken to the mayor, the comptroller and the council, who is left uncertain how there can be a positive resolution from the move of the mayor, how is any of this any less confusing to the public who hasn’t been privileged to hear all sides and attend all meetings and review all material that was distributed.
My concern is that while the mayor is calling out the council and comptroller for playing politics, how was his press conference any different? To hear the mayor repeat to the public, what he first presented to the comptroller and the council after they explained there wasn’t any money to honor his request, is a little troubling at the least. Both sides can not be telling the entire truth to the public. Either the council and comptroller’s office just won’t release the funds for the fire fighters or Thomas is misinterpreting the facts to get his way. Either way we are continuing the city government divided scenario, I spoke about all too often, during the last two years of the previous administration, since Black Westchester’s inception.
We elect these officials to do what is best for the city and currently, I can not say all of them are. I have told Richard Thomas when I first heard he had desires to run for Mayor, ultimately it is up to him to rally the troops behind him. I do not see this press conference as a move in that direction. Maybe his hands were tied and that was the only option he felt he was left with. Maybe there is a little animosity from the council toward Thomas, left over from his relationship with the council from when he was a councilman. But the public does not care.
I started out writing a news brief to cover this press conference, but it quickly turned into an editorial, because the bottom-line is something is broken and it needs to be fixed immediately or this will be a long four years. As the top dog, so to speak, the highest elected official in the City of Mount Vernon, unfortunately you get credit for all that is good and the blame for all that goes wrong. While it may be unfair, this is what you signed up for. Mr. Mayor please pick your battles carefully for the sake of the city and while the burden of a better working relationship should not fall squarely on your shoulders alone, it is one of your duties as the leader of the city.