Kadner: Elderly couple get $21,000 tax bill
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org February 21, 2013 6:20PM
Updated: March 23, 2013 6:27AM
They look like Mr. and Mrs. Claus and have names that sound like characters from a Dickens novel.
Fred and Natalie Weisfuss have lived in the same home in unincorporated Cook County near Tinley Park since 1961.
But the Cook County assessor’s office has listed the property as vacant land for that entire time, meaning the property tax was lower than it might have been.
That changed when a notice arrived in the mail from the assessor’s office last year, informing the couple that about $21,000 in “omitted” property tax was due in August 2013 for the years 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“We just don’t have that kind of money,” Fred Weisfuss told me. “Just to pay our normal $6,000 tax bill leaves us with about $1,200 to our name.”
Fred, 78, is a retired carpenter. Natalie, 75, has a heart condition.
Fred said their income is limited to about $1,500 a month, which they receive from Social Security and a small pension.
But they do own more than nine acres on three lots off of Central Avenue near 175th Street. Their home is located on one of the lots.
As for the assessor’s office declaring the land vacant all of these years, there’s a photograph of the Weisfuss house on the assessor’s website, dated 2008. You type in the property index number for the location and you can see it.
So somebody in the assessor’s office had to know in 2008 that there was a building on the “vacant” land, yet the property continued to be taxed as if it were undeveloped.
While Fred and Natalie may be cash poor, the land may have some value.
“We were offered $1.3 million for the property in 2003 or so, before the economy crashed, but she (Natalie) turned it down,” Fred said.
“They wanted us to pay for sewer and water hook-ups,” Natalie said. “It would have cost a lot of money.”
The couple moved onto the land in 1959, converting a garage into a Cape Cod-style home on a slab.
On an adjacent site was an unfinished house that apparently no one had ever lived in. Natalie’s mother bought that 1,200-square-foot house on the condition that Fred fix it up, and in 1961 they moved in.
A few years back, the converted garage caught fire and has never been repaired. If the assessor were to determine that building was uninhabitable, it could result in a lower tax for that parcel.
In addition, Fred and Natalie have never applied for any of the tax exemptions to which they might have been entitled. There’s no homeowner exemption, no senior exemption and no senior property tax freeze.
“We didn’t want to rattle any trees,” Fred said. “Our property taxes were low.”
Back around 1991, the tax apparently jumped quite a bit because Fred and Natalie went down to the assessor’s office and filed an appeal, which included photographs of their home.
There have been two other county assessors since then and the file may have been lost, but someone should have noted at the time that the land was not vacant.
Fred and Natalie met at a dance when he was 18 and she was 15.
“He thought I wanted him because he drove a Ford convertible and was hot stuff,” she said. “There were plenty of other guys around. But I couldn’t chase him off with a stick.”
Fred laughed and said he once tried to drive Natalie to Kentucky to get married without telling her in advance.
“She woke up and told me to take her home,” he said. “I turned around, but when she fell asleep I turned around again.”
He did take her back home, though, where a police officer was waiting. They eventually got married and had four children.
They lived for a time in France, where Fred was stationed in the U.S. Army. When they returned to the U.S., he learned that for $300 down and $75 a month he could purchase the garage that he would eventually convert into their first house.
Their current house is a modest wood-frame structure with two bedrooms and one bath. A wood-burning cast iron stove provides most of the heat. (“We paid only $50 for gas last winter,” Fred bragged.) A well provides water.
Out behind the house, Fred has a couple of earth movers (“I got one for $1,500”), a sailboat, a couple of motorboats, two canoes, three campers, several tractors, three or four old cars and lots of other stuff.
He rattles off the prices he paid ($150, $75, $25) and claims most of the motorized stuff runs, although I was skeptical.
“He loves the land,” Natalie said. “But I’m ready to move if we could find someone willing to buy the property.”
Fred seems less certain but explained that some of his children are in dire financial shape and “that Natalie is in bad health.” She has a heart condition and is cold all the time these days.
Natalie tells me her parents were original homesteaders in Harvey, near 147th and Halsted streets.
“They cleared the land and built a home, so they owned it,” she said.
Her grandfather fought in the Civil War.
What’s clear to me is that after 60 years together, the two are still very much in love and make each other laugh.
Heck, they made me laugh, especially when Natalie said she found out her husband “wanted some of that” when he first saw her at a dance.
“I was 15,” she said. “It would have been illegal.”
Fred said, “That’s right. I did want some of that.”
Grace Bardusk, the Bremen Township assessor, has been trying to help the couple straighten out their tax problems for several months.
And late Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Cook County assessor’s office said a representative would meet with them next week to help them out.
“We’re trying to help them,” I was told.
That would be nice.