Kadner: Seniors’ $21,000 tax bill erased
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org March 4, 2013 10:30PM
Updated: April 6, 2013 6:21AM
An elderly couple who live in unincorporated Bremen Township will not have to pay about $21,000 in “omitted” property tax.
“I think that’s wonderful,” said Fred Weisfuss, 78, who said he has “only about $200 to my name.”
As a result of a column I wrote about Fred and his wife Natalie, 75, Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios reviewed their property tax records and personally recommended that “the omitted assessment be negated.”
Fred and Natalie have lived on more than nine acres, listed as “vacant” by the assessor’s office for more than 50 years. Their first home was a converted garage on one of three contiguous lots near 175th Street and Central Avenue.
A few years later, they moved into an unfinished house nearby that, like the garage residence, was never listed on the property tax rolls.
All three lots owned by the couple were listed as vacant, resulting in lower property tax bills through the years.
Although the assessor’s office’s website featured photographs taken in 2008 of both the converted garage and the single-story house next door, the property was not taxed as having been developed until this year.
Last year, Fred and Natalie received a bill saying they had to pay by next August about $21,000 in omitted taxes covering 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Natalie told me that the couple have never taken any of the standard property tax exemptions that homeowners are entitled to under the law.
But they did appeal their tax bill about 20 years ago because of a large increase, and at that time supplied photographs of their home to the assessor’s office.
That appeal apparently proved to be a key piece of evidence in getting the omitted tax wiped off the books.
“This was a very unique case, and it was discovered that it stemmed all the way back to 1991 when the taxpayers filed an appeal, submitting pictures of their home and requested that the assessor’s office field check their home,” Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for Berrios, said. “After personally reviewing all the data and documentation, Assessor Berrios has recommended that the omitted assessments be removed from these properties.”
In addition, Berrios is going to have his office revalue the properties and help the couple file appeals, with requests for real estate certificates of error for previous years.
That means the Weisfusses would be allowed to claim the standard homeowner and senior citizen exemptions on their property for the last three years.
It also could mean that the converted garage, which was gutted by a fire several years ago, might be listed as uninhabitable, which would reduce future, as well as past, tax assessments.
“The taxpayers now have a homeowner and senior exemption on the home they reside in and will receive help in filing for a senior freeze exemption on the property,” Kownacki said.
“I’m very happy,” Fred told me by phone on Monday. “We didn’t know what in the world we would be able to do.”
Before the housing market balloon busted, Fred told me he and his wife were offered nearly
$1.5 million for the property, but they turned it down because the buyer wanted them to install sewer and water lines for a future housing development.
Natalie said they didn’t have the money to make such expensive improvements, and she thought a better offer would come along. Of course, the market went bust, and they haven’t had any offers in recent years.
Fred said he’s ready to sell because “I have to make our lives better. I know that.”
Their combined income, derived mostly from Social Security, is about $1,500 a month, he said.
If I were a TV show producer, Fred and Natalie would get a reality show.
Married for nearly 60 years, they live a frugal existence more commonly seen in rural areas of the country. Their home is heated by a wood-burning stove, their water is supplied by a well and they don’t seem to enjoy many of the technological marvels common to modern suburban living.
But over the years, Fred has collected old tractors, motorboats, earth movers, pick-up trucks, lawn mowers and anything else that has an engine. He contends that most of the stuff works. I have doubts.
With a wave of a hand, Natalie dismisses his hoarding habit with “he just loves his cars and things and he collects them.”
Bremen Township Assessor Grace Bardusk has been helping the couple file tax appeals since they came to her with the letter from the county assessor’s office. It was Bardusk who initially came to me with their story.
Berrios first campaigned for election in 2010, claiming there were properties listed incorrectly as vacant throughout Cook County. He ordered a review of all such property soon after taking office.
Many officeholders dig in their heels when an apparent injustice has taken place, and I applaud Berrios for taking a second look at this case as soon as I brought it to the attention of his office.
With pictures of their house on the county assessor’s website dating to 2008, something was obviously wrong.
Berrios emphasized that this was a unique case, and it was unlikely that other property owners would benefit from it.
I think Fred and Natalie got a fair hearing. And that’s all they wanted.