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Dane County threatens little old lady
Woman could lose her home for refusing to pay tax overcharge
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Franz, at her town of Oregon home: 'I've been here for 47 years, and I've been paying taxes all along.'
Franz, at her town of Oregon home: 'I've been here for 47 years, and I've been paying taxes all along.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Some people call Sally Franz "The Puppet Lady" because of the marionette shows she staged for years. Others call her "Aunt Sally." And everyone agrees she's a character.

But Franz, an 82-year-old town of Oregon resident who until five years ago worked as an educational assistant at Cherokee Middle School, may soon earn another appellation: homeless.

The Dane County Treasurer's Office says it will move to seize Franz's house, with an assessed value of $214,700, because she owes about $900. That's because Franz refused to pay extra a few years ago when the state made an error and overcharged her and other town of Oregon residents.

Denise Arnold, town of Oregon clerk, ably explains what happened. In 2006, the town's property tax base was deemed to have increased by $5,893,000. But the state worker charged with entering this number into a state tax equalization formula instead entered $52,893,000.

"It was a $47 million mistake," says Arnold, made worse because the state Department of Revenue "hides behind an ancient statute that says it doesn't have to correct its mistakes."

There is, Arnold admits, a practical reason for this. The error resulted not just in overcharges to town residents but undercharges to taxpayers in more than 200 other tax jurisdictions. So many thousands of tax bills would have had to be redone.

And so town of Oregon taxpayers had to pay extra, but the following year got a corresponding tax reduction. The state Legislature also moved to provide loans to town residents for the amount of the overcharge. Arnold says many grumbled and some defiantly sought loans for trifling amounts, but only one resident went further: "Sally Franz said, 'I'm not paying.'"

For Franz, it was a matter of principle. "I thought it set a bad precedent," she says. "I don't see why I should be taking a loan out because of somebody's mistake." She's continued to pay the rest of her taxes: "I've been here for 47 years, and I've been paying taxes all along."

Franz's overcharge was $343.84, but county records show her taxes for 2006 were $539.36 delinquent. She now owes the county $899, after interest and penalties. To her, that's a lot of money: "I live on $600 a month Social Security."

In recent years, Franz says she's been "harassed" over the unpaid amount. Then, on April 27, County Treasurer David Worzala sent a letter warning that if her delinquent account "is not paid in full three months after you receive this notice, Dane County, by state law, will take title to your property, and you will no longer own it."

Franz is stunned by what's happening. She calls County Executive Kathleen Falk "an old friend" and says, "I can't believe she'd let something like this go by."

Actually, according to Worzala, it was Falk who green-lighted the whole thing. Soon after he became treasurer in the fall of 2008, Worzala noted that the county's delinquent tax load had reached $20 million, up from $6.5 million in 2004. And while the relevant state statute "allows me not to" seize property over tax debts, he says Falk and others approved his plan to take a tougher approach whenever taxes are delinquent for three or more years.

Last fall, Worzala's office began sending letters to more than 800 taxpayers who exceeded this limit. Some have since settled up, and, so far, no property has been seized, but Worzala expects that will change this year.

If push comes to shove, Franz isn't sure what she'll do. Worzala is: He'll move to seize her property. He notes that Franz got a lower tax bill the following year, as well as thrice-yearly delinquency notices. "It's not like this issue has not been brought to her attention many times."

Worzala knows his hard-line policy will lead to "difficult cases," but he feels it's important to treat everyone the same. "I'm fully expecting not to look good at some point in this process."

Beth Cox, a town of Oregon attorney who is representing Franz and spoke with her permission, thinks that time has arrived. As she puts it, "I don't think the government should profit through the taking of a private citizen's land when the error that began this chain of events was caused by the government."

Cox is hoping to meet Worzala to work something out. Worzala says there's little room to negotiate; the statute won't even let him waive interest and penalties except for "active military service or proven postal error."

Crash-test pedestrians

Here's a corollary to last week's Isthmus story ("You Stopped Me for That?," 5/21/10) on police efforts to uphold pedestrians' rights.

At about 8:15 a.m. last Friday, Steve Kalscheur was waiting to cross Midvale Boulevard near his home, right by Midvale Elementary. He says the first in a series of cars heading down the street stopped for him, causing a multi-car accident.

Madison Police spokesman Howard Payne confirms there were three rear-end collisions, involving a total of four cars. The driver of the last vehicle was cited for inattentive driving. A young girl in one of the cars was taken to the hospital with a minor neck injury. Laments Kalscheur, "This sort of thing is bound to happen because there's no enforcement."

Payne says, the lead car "appropriately stopped" for the pedestrian. Kalscheur disagrees, saying he hadn't stepped off the curb and the driver "should have kept going" because other cars were traveling too fast and following too close.

Here's the rule: If a pedestrian commits to crossing the street in a crosswalk and there is time for oncoming traffic to safely stop, it must do so. And Sgt. Eric Tripke, leader of the MPD's Traffic Enforcement Safety Team, says, "It is the responsibility of the vehicles following the lead vehicle to follow at a safe distance, and to pay attention to their own driving."

In this case, "from our perspective, the cars following are at fault."

More bad news

While the newspaper business is starting to stabilize as the economy improves, newspaper sales continue to decline.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Wisconsin State Journal's average paid circulation for the most recent quarter, Jan. 1 to March 31, stood at 122,208 on Sundays and 90,424 during the week.

That's down from 127,869 and 92,693, respectively, from the previous quarter, Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, and 135,674 and 96,979 from the first quarter of 2009, for a one-year decline of 10% on Sunday and 6.6% during the week. Ouch.

Fountains of sorrow

Last year the fountains on the Capitol Square, part of a $810,000 renovation in 2005, were on the blink well into summer, due to a series of mechanical and plumbing problems (see Watchdog, 7/9/09). "Everyone involved is frustrated," said then-city engineer Larry Nelson.

But again, as of this week, two of the four fountains, positioned on either side of East and West Washington Avenue, were not working.

"We've had issues getting them going every year," says Parks Division spokeswoman Laura Whitmore. While all four were eventually running last year, "we did continue having difficulty throughout the season."

Now, she says, three of the four are operable, even if they're not turned on, and an outside firm is working to replace the mechanical system on the fourth. "If that works for a full year, then they'll systematically start changing over the other three." Hope springs eternal.

Making a big stink

One recent day a customer using the bathroom in a common area behind Community Pharmacy on State Street noticed what she thought was the smell of natural gas. Madison Gas and Electric was called and "recommended that we get everybody out of the building," says store employee Day Host-Jablonski.

The store evacuated, as did a telemarketing firm in the basement. Someone ducked into Paciugo Gelato, next door, to warn of the danger.

"Um," an employee there responded, "I don't think that's natural gas." MGE officials soon arrived to confirm: There was no leak.

Turns out the specialty ice cream store was making a batch using durian, an exotic Southeast Asia fruit that even in the region is banned from some hotels and public transit because of its penetrating aroma. It was the store's first batch and, says manager Roberto Setiawijaya, "I think it's going to be the last."

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