CEDAR LAKE | A local family recently got a notice from Lake County tax officials that sounds like a dream come true.
Rachelle Ruge-Bernard said the government notice stated her 11-year-old, 1,700-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house is now assessed to be worth nothing — that's zero dollars — for purposes of calculating her next property tax bill.
But she has filed paperwork with the Center Township assessor's office to correct this mistake and have the county raise her assessment to the proper amount for the second time in five years.
"I think they are ridiculous for not doing their job, but I don't want to be penalized," said Ruge-Bernard, a Gary teacher.
County Assessor Hank Adams, whose office oversees the work of the county's independent elected township assessors, said this week, "There is a screw-up somewhere. I think the reassessment picked up (erroneous data) she had five years ago. She shouldn't worry about it. She won't have to pay anything extra."
Center Township Assessor Kristie Dressel said Tuesday she wanted to thank Ruge-Bernard for bringing the miscue to her attention and that they are working to correct it immediately so the family's assessment is accurate by the time tax bills go out later this spring.
Dressel said it is one of many appeals that typically crop up in the wake of a general reassessment, which was just concluded.
However, most reassessment complaints revolve around property being valued too highly for tax purposes. Dressel said it is unusual for someone, like Ruge-Bernard, to ask for their assessment to be increased.
She said the fault lies with a private firm given the mission of reinspecting and remeasuring every residential, business and agricultural building in the township, which includes the eastern half of Cedar Lake and most of Crown Point, in the search for new construction since the last reassessment eight years ago.
Ruge-Bernard said it's the second time she has had to deal with the problem.
She first discovered it five years ago when her income tax preparer noticed the family was only paying property taxes on their less-than-a-quarter-acre lot and not their modular house, where she, her husband and four children have been living since they had it built 11 years ago.
Ruge-Bernard said she didn't notice the problem earlier because she assumed the bank holding her mortgage was taking care of the taxes.
Dressel said she has only been in office four years and was unaware of the problem, too.
Ruge-Bernard said, "So I went to Lake County and they said somebody had given me a tax credit of some sort that I had never signed up for. Then they told me I would have to pay back all the money I owed them and they were going to assess me penalties," she said.
"They said I could appeal, but I couldn't figure out why I was being punished because I'm not the one who misplaced my house. I told them being honest doesn't work."
She said her problem was eventually resolved five years ago by repaying the back taxes and no penalties being assessed.
Dressel said the problem may stem from a confusion of property records. The family's lot is divided into five parcels. The assessment in question may only apply to one or more of the parcels on which the house doesn't sit.
Adams said it is a problem across the county and the state is mandating him to combine all single-owner, adjoining properties.