Appearing with Bob Marrone of WVOX AM 1460, Mayor Noam Bramson blamed city workers for “clerical errors” that cost the City tens of thousands of dollars in uncollected taxes. As a result, Municipal Civil Services Commission Chairman Dominic Procopio was able to pocket thousands of dollars in illicit property tax exemptions on his property at 7 Pinebrook Road going back to at least 2002. After Talk of the Sound reported Procopio’s tax problems, the well-connected Procopio was allowed to keep the vast majority of the money.
Procopio received Combat Veteran Tax Exemptions for eight year despite never having served in the U.S. military, as well as STAR exemptions given to owners living in the home. Procopio lives in another home on Liberty Avenue.
Bramson got several pointed questions about a Talk of the Sound story yesterday regarding the agenda for today’s City Council meeting which includes an amendment to the City Charter regarding the Appointing Authority for the Civil Service Administrator.
“Mr. Procopio has done a good job”, said Bramson, when challenged on Procopio’s fitness for office.
Asked why Mr. Procopio continues to serve in his current position despite collecting thousands of dollars tax exemptions to which he was not entitled, Bramson said “based on input from staff, I did not conclude it was necessary to remove Mr. Procopio”.
When a later caller pressed to explain that statement, Bramson said he did not recall all the details but did recall he was told the problems stemmed from “a clerical error made by city rather than by the filer”.
Earlier in the call, Bramson denied that a recently proposed change to the City Charter had anything to do with Domenic Procopio.
Let’s take a look shall we?
The City Charter says the Mayor appoints the Civil Service Commission and the Civil Service Commission appoints and removes the employees of the Civil Service office.
ARTICLE XVII Civil Service
Section 173 Municipal Civil Service Commission – 59 – The Municipal Civil Service Commission shall be constituted as prescribed by law and shall elect one of its members President. The members of the Commission who are in office when this Charter takes effect shall be the members of the Commission (subject to the power of removal as prescribed by law) until the expiration of their terms of office and until their successors are appointed and qualify. Their compensation shall be fixed by the Council.
Section 174 Secretary and employees
The Commission may appoint and at pleasure remove a secretary, who shall perform such duties as may be imposed upon him by the Commission or by law. The Commission may appoint and for cause remove such other employees as it deems necessary for the proper conduct of the business of the office, provided that the position has been authorized and the salary thereof fixed by the Council.
Section 175 Appointment of Commissioners
The members of the Municipal Civil Service Commission as prescribed by law shall be appointed by the Mayor.
There is now before the City Council a proposal to change that so that the City Manager appoints “the Civil Service Administrator” which takes away this authority from the Civil Service Commission run by Domenic Procopio. As City Manager Chuck Strome has refused since October to answer any further questions about Procopio we cannot be certain as to the sudden desire to change the City Charter in this way but the effect of taking away appointing authority from Procopio when the only authority he had over the department was to appoint the Civil Service Administrator the practical effect is to render the position of Commissioner of the Civil Service Commission meaningless. One explanation is that the Mayor is orchestrating a two-step process which will result in Procopio’s position slowly ebbing away. Rather than fire Procopio outright for pocketing thousands of dollars in illicit tax exemptions intended for Veterans, Bramson will let the City Manager assume Procopio’s appointing authority then later allow the Commissioner’s position dissolve so that Procopio is never actually fired and Bramson can keep whatever benefit he imagine he gets from being on terms Procopio.
As for the Mayor’s claim that this is all some big misunderstanding, let’s see if we can refresh the Mayor’s memory.
The City Manager’s office has stated that there are NO records of how Combat Veteran Exemptions or STAR exemptions were obtained for the property at 7 Pinebrook Road. They say this is because the City is not required to keep records that are more than six years old and that with regards to this property there are no records from prior to 2003. Given the lack of records, no definitive statement can be made either way as to HOW the exemptions were first obtained, what role Mr. Procopio may or may not have played in submitting paperwork to obtain the exemptions. To assert, as the Mayor has, that Procopio was getting illicit exemptions due to a “clerical error” is unsupported by the record.
Likewise, the City Manager’s office has stated that the Combat Veteran exemption was originally granted to Peter Ferrari and his spouse and accidentally carried over to Mr. Procopio when he took sole control of the property in 2002. Procopio, reportedly a family friend, was given a co-ownership of the property before Mr. Ferrari passed away and obtain sole ownership upon the passing of Mrs. Ferrari in 2002. The City has not produced a single record supporting this claim that Ferrari applied for the Combat Veteran exemption or even that Ferrari ever served in the U.S. Military, saw combat or used eligible funds to purchase the property entitling him to the Combat Veteran exemption.
In short, Mayor Bramson’s claim to know that the illicit exemptions were based a clerical error made by city rather than by the filer is false.
Regardless of the cause, there is no dispute that Mr. Procopio received the benefit of tax exemptions for many years to which he was not entitled. The question then is why the City has elected not to recover the money that Procopio was able to keep due to the so-called “clerical error”. The clear implication of the Mayor’s remarks on WVOX today is that because the property tax reductions received by Mr. Procopio came about about due to an error by a City employee, the City does not feel it would be fair to Mr. Procopio to recover the money.
Mr. Procopio is a public official. Louis Perone, tax assessor for New Rochelle, told Talk of the Sound that he believes a public official has a higher obligation than the average citizen to pro-actively notify the tax assessor of a “clerical error” on his tax bill. Off-the-record, City officials have claimed that Mr. Procopio, an immigrant from Italy, did not understand his tax bill because he does not understand English very well.
For the moment, let’s grant the Mayor’s premise that Mr. Procopio is a victim. In this latest scenario, we are told we have an inarticulate, uneducated immigrant who is genuinely baffled by tax bills he finds confusing because they are printed in a language he cannot read and wrongly accused of taking advantage of a clerical error to enrich himself. If this were an accurate portrayal, Talk of the Sound would be first in line to defend Procopio and demand that the City eat any losses these careless clerks might have caused. At the same time, if this were true, we would also want to how the Mayor can consider Procopio qualified to hold a position which requires that he read and understand numerous documents written in English that are likely far more complex than a single line-item that reads “Combat Vet Tax Exemption”. It cannot be both.
The victim scenario is simply not plausible and the City knows this which is why the City calculated a restore to roll bill for some of the tax exemptions but not all of the tax exemptions and not the largest portion of the tax exemptions. Arguing against the victim scenario, the City of New Rochelle has required Procopio to pay back the 8 years of Combat Veteran Exemptions he received both for New Rochelle and Westchester County but not required to pay back the far larger STAR exemptions. The Combat Veteran Exemptions are smaller and all together totaled a little over $2,000. The value of the STAR exemptions was never calculated but the combined value of 8 years of STAR exemptions would certainly be well above $10,000 and possible 2-3 times that amount. In addition, the tax assessor has the right to deny for five years any legitimate STAR exemptions Procopio receives on the property where he resides now.
Challenged to explain this by Talk of the Sound, the same staff which Bramson says told him it was a “clerical error” told Talk of the Sound that “STAR is not recoverable” and that “STAR was a state matter”, both absolute falsehoods. The exact opposite is the case. According to officials at the New York State Office of Real Property in Albany, STAR is recoverable, the State is prohibited from being involved and only the New Rochelle tax assessor can go after this money.
The matter is quite simple.
Domenic Procopio was caught red-handed enriching himself by taking many thousands of dollars in tax exemptions he knew he was not entitled to and when caught was given preferential treatment so that he only had to pay back the most political embarrassing funds — the combat vet exemptions. Despite this face-saving move, support for Procopio has continued to slip in New Rochelle, primarily due to the outrage expressed by veterans in New Rochelle over the past three months. As a result, the Mayor is now looking for a way to cut Procopio loose without actually firing him and risk alienating a political ally who happens to know where a lot of the “bodies are buried” in New Rochelle (because he buried them).
Or maybe there is something plausible explanation, Mr. Mayor. That Domenic Procopio is doing a “good job” ain’t one of them.