For Tom and Veronica Bullock, this year’s blizzard brought more than an avalanche of snow. The retired South Side Chicago couple was also hit by an arctic blast of bureaucratic bungling and red tape.
Their trouble came in the form of a $1,343 bill from the City of Chicago’s Department of Revenue—for demolition on a property the couple didn’t own—but which the city emphatically insisted they did.
Meanwhile, the Better Government Association got involved and began asking questions of city officials.
Municipal crews don’t normally do work on private property, but they will rip down structures on abandoned or otherwise vacant land if they’re deemed dangerous. The city then tries to recoup the costs from the property owners of record.
In a Feb. 1 letter, a formal claim was brought by the city against the Bullocks for a garage demolition at 255 W. 104th Pl., in the Roseland area a few blocks from their home on West 104th Street.
Accompanying the letter was documentation that included a breakdown of the city’s charges and pictures of the demolition.
There also was material referencing another garage demolition—at 347 W. 116th St.
The implication was that the Bullocks owned that property as well.
The Bullocks, who have lived in their tidy two-story house for 40 years, insisted they never had anything to do with either parcel and refused to pay the $1,343.
But more than that, the Bullocks provided the city with public documents showing they did not own either site.
Nonetheless, the city bureaucracy continued to aggressively pursue collection of the demolition fee.
“I was devastated, they had been given all that information, they had no reason to do this,” said Veronica Bullock, 70. As for Tom, her 79-year-old husband, “he just held his head in his hands”, she said.
Cook County property records reviewed by the BGA—which the Bullocks recently contacted for help—indicate the last-known owners of the properties had not made property-tax payments in at least two years.
A further check found both properties in foreclosure and at least one of the listed owners to be deceased.
Veronica Bullock described the entire situation as something “out of the clear blue sky” that had never happened to her and her husband before.
“We came in with a good heart” to try to resolve the situation, she added, but they were stunned by the difficulties they encountered with the city.
After her initial complaint to the Department of Revenue, she contacted the Cook County assessor’s office, which confirmed to Bullock that neither property belonged to her and her husband.
She passed this information to the Revenue Department, but her next correspondence from the agency provided little clarity or comfort.
In a March 3 letter, the department’s deputy director wrote the Bullocks confirming they weren’t the owners of 347 W. 116th St., but still insisting they were the owners of the 255 W. 104th Pl., and owed the city $1,343. Also included was what the deputy director said was the land’s corresponding county property index number.
But, the BGA found, that index number actually was for the Bullocks’ West 104th Street address—not 255 W. 104th Pl.
On April 3, the Bullocks sent a new letter to the Department of Revenue further contesting the bill.
That letter, according to Department of Revenue spokesman Ed Walsh, prompted a fresh inquiry.
Meanwhile, the BGA got more involved, and began asking questions of city officials.
Within a day, the city sent the Bullocks a letter clearing them of any responsibility, apologizing and blaming computer error for the mix-up.
“It looks like the Bullocks came up in a query that was done for 255,” Walsh said, referring to the 104th Place parcel.
He acknowledged, “There should have been a little more digging done.”
Still, the two-month stalemate took its toll, said Veronica Bullock, who wrote a number of government agencies and non-profits seeking help in resolving the matter.
Living on a fixed income, both she and her husband, who once worked as an investigator for the NAACP and as a maintenance man at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have battled health issues, with Tom Bullock’s illnesses so bad that his wife avoided talking extensively to him about the city’s bill, fearing that it would make his condition worse.
She said: “You would think if somebody would be complaining that much to them—writing to the [Illinois] Attorney General, writing to the mayor’s office, writing to AARP, writing to everybody that I could—that they would kind of get a clue.”
Indeed, a little more diligence and care on the part of the city’s bureaucracy could have spared the Bullocks from an unnecessarily harsh winter experience.
If you have information or a similar encounter relevant to this article, share your stories and experiences with the BGA.
This story was reported and written by BGA Investigator James Edwards, who can be reached at (312) 821-9036, or at email@example.com.