The "CEO" Of Mount Vernon
Get to know Mayor Richard Thomas, who swept into office earlier this year promising much-needed economic growth for his city.
At just 33, Richard Thomas is the youngest mayor in Mount Vernon’s history. The lifelong resident began his political career working for New York governor David Paterson, subsequently becoming the youngest person to sit on the Mount Vernon City Council, at age 29. Many have interpreted his landslide victory in last year’s general election (he received 78 percent of the vote against three challengers) to be a mandate for a new direction in the embattled municipality, yet he’s off to a contentious and controversial start with this mission. Part of his platform was a comprehensive plan to revitalize Mount Vernon as a center for business and job growth. We sat down with Thomas to discuss some of these plans.
You’ve earned an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business and held various jobs in finance. How will your background in economics influence your administration?
I have a vision to operate City Hall like a small business. The current practice is to have 32 commissioners and deputy commissioners for Mount Vernon; my hope is to pare this down to around 12. We can use these savings to invest in the business of the people of Mount Vernon. In putting approximately $1 million back into the city, there can be a 2 percent tax reduction on our residents. I plan to run the city using a cost-benefit analysis. We will try to present the values, the math, and the methodology to show people that we are making decisions based on data. The numbers will really drive my opinion.
You are hoping to attract new business to Mount Vernon, especially startups or businesses that have been priced out of other areas. How do you plan to do this?
Resources in Mount Vernon are significantly less expensive. We have very cheap water rates. If you’re a tech company, you need water to cool your servers; if our water rates are 25 times less than in New York City, that’s a significant savings. Our electricity costs are lower than New York City’s, too. Also, we can work with tax abatements pegged to job creation or revenue generation for potential startups and developers. I speak finance, and many companies will appreciate both my understanding and the fact that I will move at the speed of capital.
Another issue you’ve mentioned is your desire to bring higher education to Mount Vernon. How will this benefit the city?
I would love to establish higher-education facilities in the city. I’ve been reaching out to universities in New York City to consider creating dormitories here in Mount Vernon for graduate students. I believe that higher education is important for the city to attract. It brings both investments and the people that come with those investments—more people in our downtown area that will patronize our businesses. You see this happening in New Rochelle with Monroe College. New dorms, new buildings have been built, and that activity is really a major benefit.
Is the city’s infrastructure prepared to deal with an increase in traffic if all these new businesses come to fruition?
Mount Vernon’s transit system is a major strength. We have three Metro-North train stations, two subway stations, six highways, and countless buses—this comprises the county’s strongest transportation system. Not only that, but we have 11 bridges that cover MTA tracks. We hope to collaborate with the MTA through the $26 billion MTA Capital Plan. They have not invested in any of those bridges over the past 100 years, and they have an obligation to fix that.
Why is targeting “zombie homes” so important?
There are around 700 foreclosure actions in various stages within Mount Vernon, with 54 properties under control of the city. We have drafted legislation designed to empower Millennials and middle- class families to participate in auctions for these properties. It is important that we make decisions with the future in mind. Our goal is to take these zombies and use them to help bring people into the city without pushing anyone out.
You’re a golfer. What have you learned from the game?
I grew up on the streets of Mount Vernon, but I was raised on the greens of golf courses. I lied about my age to start carrying golf clubs at Siwanoy [Country Club] when I was 10 and caddied throughout college. I was able to spend time on the course with Mike Bloomberg; I got my first real job in high school assisting [billionaire investor] Mario Gabelli’s team on the trading desk after caddying for him. It was great just being around these executives—seeing how they play, how they move, how they think, or negotiate. I learned that you can tell a lot about somebody by how they play golf: Are they honest or dishonest? Do they play by the rules, or do they constantly blur them?
Have you brought that way of thinking into the mayor’s office?
For the past 20 years, you had a patronage model, where you had 32 jobs to give out: 16 commissioners and 16 deputies for 16 agencies. I’m not doing that, and there are many people that are not pleased. I’m going to whittle that down and make people more accountable for the work.