MADISON, WIS., NOV. 29 -- The heirs of elderly Wisconsin residents who needed county welfare money during the Great Depression to pay a 90-cent electric bill or buy a $1.50 pair of shoes may be in for a surprise. Some Wisconsin counties and municipalities require that people who got local welfare relief, no matter how long ago, pay it back.

However, neither the county nor, in many cases, the family will find out about the bill until the recipient has died, county officials said.

In one case this fall, the Rock County Social Services Department billed the estate of an 86-year-old woman for $100.21.

Irene Schwengels, a coal miner's widow with two toddlers, got assistance in 1935 and 1936. She used $5.72 for a ton of coal to heat the home, $19.63 to see a doctor and the rest for food.

The demand for repayment incensed her sister, Enid Wichelt of Beloit.

"I can see going back 10 years, but to go back 50 years . . . that was the Depression and people were starving. It isn't the money, it's the principle," Wichelt said.

However, officials in Rock and Milwaukee counties and the city of Madison also argue principle in collecting the half-century-old debts.

"It's usually a small amount and, in essence, it's been a 50-year, interest-free loan," said James Bahler, financial investigator for the Rock County Social Services Department.

"That money we collect is used to help those who need it today," he said.

The department handles about two dozen cases a year involving Depression-era bill collections, Bahler said. The bills usually range from $200 to $400 and cost only about $20 per case to process, he said.

"Most are surprised about getting a bill that old, and most {heirs} tend to think of the estate {of a relative} as their money," said Jeff Aikin of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services.

"But if you look at it as a benefit your parents got when they needed it most, I think you should feel an obligation to repay the taxpayers," Aikin said.

The only way such a bill surfaces is if the individual comes forward to pay it or through checks with various county records when probate and estate papers are filed.

Under state law, a county can require repayment of welfare from the recipients only within 10 years after it is granted. After that, counties are prohibited from seeking repayment until a person's death. Then they can seek the money through a lien against the estate, Aikin said.

"It is cost-effective here because of our larger population. There were an estimated 40,000 people on welfare in Milwaukee at that time, compared to only about 7,000 today," Aikin said.

Bob McEvoy, head of the Milwaukee department's securities division, which collects welfare bills, said his office handles up to 50 cases a month involving debts from the 1930s and '40s.

"I think we're probably the most vigorous of counties at doing this," McEvoy said. "A lot of people come in and want to pay the bill so it won't be billed to the estate."

The city of Madison will pursue Depression-era bills, but Brown and Dane counties and the city of Green Bay have decided to drop the debts.

"We've looked at them and found it just wasn't worth it -- the amount you'd spend to get back a hundred bucks," said Roy Diedrich, vice president of the Brown County Housing Allowance. "I'm surprised anyone still does" require repayment.