Shortly after the passing of the deadline for applications for school board I received a “tip” to look into the residency of Jerome Smith. This source claims that Mr. Smith is only at his house at 37 Watkins Place 2-3 nights a week, that he comes to New Rochelle for business and school board meetings but no longer spends the majority of his time in New Rochelle. Where exactly he goes on those other nights was not made clear but this tip combined with Smith’s extremely poor attendance record at Board meeting (the lowest of any board member since 2008) gave a ring of authenticity to this tip.
Jerome Smith has owned the property at 37 Watkins for a long time and no doubt has lived there for the vast majority of the time but the question is whether that property is currently his PRIMARY residence.
The most obvious place to look is at the property card and assessment card for the property. A homeowner is entitled to significant property tax exemptions on a primary residence – STAR and, depending on age, Enhanced STAR and, depending on military service, veterans exemptions, combat veteran exemptions and more recently cold war veteran exemptions. At the very least Smith would be eligible for a basic STAR exemption worth about $2,000 a year.
City records show that Jerome Smith does not have ANY property tax exemptions for his property at 37 Watkins Place. Additional research shows that Jerome Smith does not own any other property in New Rochelle.
Why would anyone not take the largest available property tax exemption available? The STAR program, initiated by Governor Pataki as part of his 1997-98 budget, “finances a partial exemption from school property taxes on owner-occupied homes…the STAR exemption is larger—and the percentage tax break smaller—in areas where home values far exceed the median statewide home price.” As residents know, this would certainly apply to homes in New Rochelle. If Mr. Smith has not taken a STAR exemption for the past 12 years, he has given up about $20,000 – $30,000 cash.
Does this make sense?
I sought to raise this issue at the Board of Education meeting at New Rochelle High School tonight. Under New York State law, the Board of Education is responsible for administering of school board elections which includes collecting candidate forms, verifying petition signatures, creating the ballots, running the machines and otherwise assuring the integrity of the school board election. This is clearly a Board of Education issue and yet the moment I raised it Board President Sara Richmond and Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak stated that I was not permitted to raise the issue of whether a sitting board member was eligible to be on the board.
If this issue cannot be raised to the Board of Education then where can it be raised?
Smith was clearly unhappy with my raising the issue. Later in the evening, when the public was invited to comment on the proposed school budget, Mr. Smith took the unusual step of stepping down from the stage and going to the microphone. He began by stating that he has lived at 37 Watkins Place for a long time and that announced he supported the budget.
My name is Jerome Smith of 37 Watkins Place. I have lived there for 37 years. This is a grand and great budget. I have been on the board for 15 years and I am running for re-election.
It is hardly news that Smith supports the budget since he already voted to approve the budget and there was no need for him to step down from the board to comment on the budget as he is free to do that at any time as a board member so his purpose was rather transparent.
More to the point, I did not question whether he lived at 37 Watkins Place but whether it is currently his primary residence. For the record, when he had the chance Smith did not say that 37 Watkins Place is currently his primary residence only that he lived there.
After the meeting I waited outside to give Mr. Smith the opportunity to respond. He saw me, scowled and walked past without a word. As Mr. Smith makes the rounds of various civic groups, campaigning for his fourth term on the school board, I hope readers will explore this issue more fully with Mr. Smith.
For those not familiar with the City tax roll document, here is an example of a nearby property with property tax exemptions: