The year was 1988 when the state of Wisconsin acquired a portion of two properties in the 9700 block of S. Howell Ave.
One of those properties belonged to Steve Bocek. The other was owned by a neighbor, but would be obtained by Bocek in 1996.
In 2011 - a full 23 years since the state bought part of those properties - the Oak Creek resident realized that tax records didn't reflect the state's purchase. The never received the information from the state and had been charging Bocek as if his land was bigger than it was.
In other words, Bocek has been overpaying taxes since 1988.
Bocek then asked for and received relief from the Oak Creek Common Council, which earlier this week voted unanimously to refund taxes already paid.
The council's move is unprecedented, City Attorney Larry Haskin said. Further, aldermen didn't legally have to do it since so much time has passed. According to state statute, the burden is on the taxpayer to file a claim for unlawful taxes. Bocek had no recourse if the council voted against refunding him.
But it did, and Bocek will get an estimated $4,633. It would have been more, but tax bills only go back to 1994.
To Bocek, 72 years old, retired and legally blind, the refund means a lot.
"That's a lot of money to me," he said. "I've been retired for 22 years. I'm not no kid no more. I pay the bills, I pay my taxes quarterly so I don't have a debt."
How it happened
City officials were somewhat incredulous that it took this long for Bocek to realize his property was not as big as tax records indicated. He appeared at an open book meeting with the city assessor in 2004 and again in 2007, but the mistake still slipped by.
It was only after Bocek and his son took out a tape measure about four months ago when they realized that his alleged property line was in his neighbor's house.
"I was planning on building a house maybe this year or next year on the empty lots. I got a ruler and started measuring with my son and said, 'What the hell's going on here?" he said. "We're in the middle of Ron's house."
Bocek, a 36-year resident of Oak Creek, said that the state told him it had no record of even buying the property. No receipt. No anything.
Mayor Dick Bolender said something similar happened to him on his property when the state took land for Highway 100. Then, too, the state did not inform the city about the acquisition but Bolender caught the error in time, he said.
Doing the 'right thing'
Given the passage of time, it was completely within the discretion of the Common Council to refund Bocek the money, Haskin said.
But aldermen said the city had a moral obligation to do so.
"I think it's the only right thing to do to reimburse the man," Alderman Dan Bukiewicz said.
"If Oak Creek is going to be a friendly place to live," Alderman Dan Jakubczyk said, "then I think the fair thing to do would be to return that money to him."