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August 20, 2012

By Jonathan Bandler Before he collected school-tax reductions on two homes when only one was allowed, the chief criminal investigator for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office enjoyed four years of senior-citizen tax breaks on a third home — when he was only in his early 40s. Terrance Raynor saved more than $13,500 by getting the enhanced tax break for seniors under the state School-Tax Relief, or STAR, program after buying 129 North 5th Ave. in Mount Vernon a decade ago, a review of Mount Vernon finance and assessment records shows. He never requested the tax breaks but kept getting them because it took the city Assessor’s Office time to realize he wasn’t entitled to them. Raynor was sued last week over different STAR exemptions that he did request. For six years, his school taxes were reduced on two other properties he owned in Mount Vernon and Peekskill, even though state law permits the tax breaks for only one primary residence at a time. The lawsuit was filed by a company run by Sam Zherka, a strip club owner and publisher of the Westchester Guardian who is an outspoken critic of Raynor’s boss, Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore. The 49-year-old Raynor, a former Mount Vernon police chief hired by DiFiore in 2006, said Sunday that he had not been formally served with the lawsuit and had not reviewed his tax and real estate records. He said he had not been focusing on the Mount Vernon property’s taxes when he bought the Peekskill home and sought a STAR exemption there. The basic STAR exemption reduces school taxes on primary residences for those with a household income of less than $500,000. The enhanced exemption goes to those older than 65 with a household income under $79,050. It is the homeowner’s responsibility to inform the local assessor when he or she moves to a new primary residence. Raynor never made such a notification when he and his wife moved into the Peekskill house and got a STAR exemption there. Raynor was the police chief when he bought 129 North 5th Ave. in October 2002. He did not apply for a STAR exemption, as he had been receiving the basic exemption since 1998 for his home at 130 Claremont Ave. But based on Mount Vernon finance and assessment records, Raynor’s school tax bills for the first four years he owned the North 5th Avenue property reflected discounts of at least 60 percent — ranging from $3,060 to $3,947 — because the elderly resident who previously owned it had the enhanced credit. It was not until 2007 that the city Assessor’s Office canceled the exemption. Raynor’s school tax bill was $2,178 in 2006-2007. It jumped to $6,535 the following year. Raynor claimed Sunday not to have realized there was such a huge jump in his bill, that taxes were regularly going up and he paid what was on the bill. And he said he never realized that he had been getting the enhanced STAR credit.

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“Certainly, I don’t think I’m at fault if someone else didn’t do their homework,” he said. When Raynor and his wife bought a home at 35 Buena Vista Ave. in Peekskill in 2005 they applied for the STAR exemption, certifying that it would be their primary residence. Above their signatures on the state application is the word “Caution,” followed by a warning that “anyone who misrepresents his or her primary residence, age or income shall be subject to a $100 penalty, shall be prohibited from receiving the STAR exemption for five years, and may be subject to criminal prosecution.” Raynor never notified the Mount Vernon assessor and continued receiving the break on his Mount Vernon taxes through the 2010-11 school year — saving $12,328 over the six years while he was also getting the benefit in Peekskill. Mount Vernon Assessor Anthony DeBellis said it sometimes takes time to realize a property has been sold and no longer qualifies for a senior exemption — even though seniors are required to recertify their income eligibility annually to keep the credit. And he said it was up to the state to go after double dippers. “I’m not a cop, it’s not my job,” DeBellis said. “The STAR program is an unfunded mandate and this is the state’s money.” State tax law gives the local assessor the authority to recoup money if they learn of a violation. It was not immediately clear why Mount Vernon canceled the STAR exemption for Raynor in April 2011. Zherka’s lawsuit suggests that it was because Raynor got wind of a Freedom of Information request Zherka had filed a month earlier in Peekskill regarding his STAR exemption there. But DeBellis said the state might have recognized the double dipping and notified Mount Vernon.

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