Tax sale wreaks havoc with Cedar Lake woman's life

2013-02-17T00:00:00Z 2013-11-15T23:50:07Z Tax sale wreaks havoc with Cedar Lake woman's lifeBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
February 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CEDAR LAKE | Blind and living on little more than her Social Security check, Dolores Pittman soon may be homeless.

Lake County officials have mistakenly traded away the plot of land on which she had been living for 54 years in a tax delinquency sale.

"I got an eviction notice Thursday. I don't know what I'm going to do. Besides being scared that I don't have a place to live, no one wants to take my cats. Being without my cats ... that would probably just kill me," she said.

She said she shares her house with her brother, along with a daughter and son-in-law.

"My granddaughter is away at school. When she comes home there will be no place for her, either," Pittman said.

Pittman has hired an attorney to fight the eviction in court as well as cancel the county's sale of her lot, now in the hands of Clayton Pullins, a local man who bought it at a public auction for $43 three years ago.

Lake County officials said they were previously unaware of her plight until last week.

"This is why I hate tax sales with a passion," Lake County Treasurer John Petalas said.

Lake County Attorney John Dull looked through county records after her situation became known.

"We have no responsibilities here," Dull said. "When you buy property, you are supposed to check it and make certain things are correct. Maybe, if Mr. Pullins could help her."

Pullins couldn't be reached for comment. His attorney, John Craig, didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

"The gentleman who bought it didn't do anything wrong," Pittman said. "I'm not blaming him. He's just doing it to make money."

Her Constitution Avenue home she may lose is small, not far from Town Hall, the Lighthouse Restaurant or chic new condominiums growing in the community.

Pittman, a lifelong town resident, said she recalls her parents moving into it in December 1958.

"The first thing that went up was the Christmas tree," she said. 

Pittman became a Lowell town librarian, but suffered a ruptured appendix at age 38 and the infection caused her sight to deteriorate.

"I worked about two years after it happened and then I went on disability. I'm completely blind now and can't see anything but bright light."

She remained at home with her mother, who is now deceased.

"At first, we rented, and then we purchased (the house) on contract for $16,000 years ago, and we always pay the taxes on it," she said.

County officials said the Pittman family didn't record the house's sale through a land title company, which also left ownership of the land the house sits on dangerously muddled.

The Pittmans could not buy the land beneath the house, which sat on the edge of a 19.5-acre plot once owned by the Lake Region Christian Assembly. That group once operated a summer resort.

Pittman said the Assembly granted 99-year leases to the owners of several cottages built on their grounds, including Ariel Brady, the original tenant of Pittman's house and yard.

Pittman said her family assumed the lease and paid rent to the Assembly and, later, to the town of Cedar Lake, which purchased the Assembly's real estate in 1977.

Pittman's lawyer, Shaun T. Olsen, argues in Lake Superior Court records, the town also bought Pittman's plot.  

"If the town didn't own the property, why was I paying them rent?" Pittman asked. "They never said a word. They just took the money."

Her attorney argues that if Cedar Lake owned the land, then the tax sale was invalid, since the county wouldn't have put municipal-owned land at jeopardy of being lost at auction.

However, David Austgen, Cedar Lake town attorney, said the town never owned Pittman's plot.

"This parcel was excluded from the sale. I don't know why," he said.

"The Pittmans claim, without much authority, that the town is responsible here. We have looked very carefully. We stood on our heads to resolve this, because nobody wants problems for the Pittmans."

County Treasurer Petalas's office oversees tax collections.

"The (Assembly) assigned one parcel number for the land and another parcel number for the house, so the lady would get the tax breaks of the house," he said. "We see that (Pittman) faithfully paid the taxes on the house -- but the (Assembly) didn't pay the taxes on the land."

Bob Grove, the president of Board of Directors for LRCA camp, which now operates grounds near Crown Point, had little to say on the situation.

"We have no legal or moral obligation to this woman. We have no further comment," Grove said.

State law permits counties to pursue delinquent taxpayers by putting their property up for auction to the highest bidder. Lake County puts thousands of such parcels on the auction block three times a year, and hundreds of interested seller take part.

"When a (parcel) number is tagged for tax sale, the county just sells it," Petalas said.

It was one of more than 1,100 parcels the county sold in a 2009 online auction.

Pittman said she was unaware of the sale.

"They couldn't send me a letter?" Pittman asked.

Petalas said the letter probably was sent to the Assembly, not her, because she wasn't listed as the owner.

"Nobody wants to admit they did anything wrong," Pittman said.

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