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Appreciating value

Bill Greazel retires from Johnson County Assessor’s Office
Bill Greazel retired from the position of Johnson County Assessor Sept. 30. Greazel first came to the assessor’s office in 1973. (photo by Lori Lindner)

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader

IOWA CITY– The tax man cometh, and stayed for 42 years.
Johnson County Assessor Bill Greazel celebrated his retirement from more than four decades of service with a reception on Friday, Sept. 25. Those years brought many changes, innovations and advancements to the assessor’s office, as well as many lessons to the man himself.
First, life is full of happy accidents.
Growing up in the rural area between Iowa City and Solon on Highway 1, Greazel lived in a one-room schoolhouse before moving to the Bohemian neighborhood in Iowa City, known as Goosetown, and attending St. Wenceslaus Church. It was through his Catholic connections he met his wife, Janet Duffey, an Irish Catholic girl.
“Being a St. Wenceslaus kid, I took things a bit more casually than she did,” he laughed. Their first date was senior prom, and while their relationship began as happenstance between two teenagers from diverse backgrounds, the couple now have three successful children and five grandchildren, whom Greazel describes as “the best, smartest and most entertaining children you could ever hope to meet.”
Perhaps that date was happy accident number one. A subsequent accident led Greazel to the career he held for 42 years.
After graduating as a political science major from the University of Iowa, he took a job briefly in his father-in-law’s contracting business, and then as car salesman at Winebrenner-Dreusicke Ford. “I knew I didn’t want to pound nails for the rest of my life, and being a car salesman left a lot to be desired for me,” he said, but when attending a family gathering with his wife, a relative mentioned that the assessor’s office was looking for help. Greazel thought he would try it for awhile.
“It was just going to be a job until I figured out what I really wanted to do,” Greazel said. “Somewhere along the line I must have figured it out, because I never left.”
In September 1973, when Greazel came to work for assessor Vern Potter, the office was in the basement of the Johnson County Courthouse.
“The assessors were always in the courthouse basement any place in Iowa, because up until 1948, there was no such thing as a county assessor. There were township assessors, and were responsible for valuing not just the real estate property, but also your personal property– your hogs and cattle, your tractors and freezers and refrigerators; all personal property, ” Greazel said. “In the old days of the monies and credits tax, the assessor even had to look at your bank account and report how much cash you had in savings and stocks and bonds. If people think taxation today is intrusive, in those days, it was very intrusive.”
Those early assessors were part-time workers, usually farmers, who conducted assessments over the winter months. They would come around with their big books, list everything and put a value on it. Township assessors were often related to many of the residents they assessed, and it’s not hard to imagine their job causing hard feelings between family members, Greazel said.
“As the state grew, it became untenable. Some states still have township assessors, but Iowa– as we have been in so many things– was innovative enough to realize that we needed a full-time person with the training and competency to be equitable for everybody,” he said.
Greazel watched as the state grew and processes changed in his office and others: there were three part-time county supervisors when he started, and when they later hired an administrative assistant, it caused an uproar among residents. Today, it takes over 500 individuals in more than 20 departments to provide all the services that benefit Johnson County’s 130,000 citizens.
He has also seen trends in taxation come and go. Over time, the monies and credits tax became too onerous, and the personal property tax was done away with in the 1980s, although some states still impose a personal property tax, he noted.
“We no longer had to try to put a value on cattle and tractors and that sort of thing. So the trend has been to raise revenue for school districts and county operations on real estate– your house, your business buildings, and your land. And you can understand that it’s much more painful.”
For many years, Greazel was the only field appraiser. The office now has five appraisers, and their experiences are different than Greazel’s were in the beginning. He started out writing everything on paper, using a 10-key calculator to add property values from thousands of individual cards. A few years ago, his became one of the first assessor’s offices to go paperless, using iPads in the field and keeping records in computer databases instead of file cabinets. The county’s Geographical Information System, or GIS, originated in the assessor’s office, so satellite views of properties and all related data are visible from the site, and property information is available online through the Beacon website, another innovation Greazel initiated.
Tools on the assessor’s website page enable people to estimate their taxes, file tax credit applications, create reports, submit appeals and view property sales data without leaving home.
“It provides equity,” Greazel said. “The taxpayer now has as many resources as we do, so they are not at an unfair disadvantage. It’s an educational tool that walks taxpayers through the same process we go through, so we are all looking at it from the same perspective using the same facts.” The website tools also provide data that let the assessor’s office track the number of appeals filed.
“We have relatively few,” he said. “It’s a customer service that saves us time as well.”
Recently, his office started allowing property owners to take video of their properties on their cell phones and submit them via the Internet.
“Now we don’t have to drive all over the county for a 10 minute inspection of your basement remodel,” said Greazel. “The objective is to make it convenient for homeowners and less expensive for us.”
Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan enumerated these and many other accomplishments Greazel brought to his position in his county-wide email communication last week.
“I simply cannot say enough good things about the performance of the Assessor’s Office under Bill,” Sullivan wrote. “The Iowa Department of Revenue has a couple different measures of accuracy for assessors. In my 11 years of reviewing this data, the Johnson County Assessor’s Office has been third once in one category; otherwise, we have ranked no. 1 or no. 2 in both categories all 11 years. The statistics are clear: the Johnson County Assessor’s Office is the best in the state.”
It indicates that residents in Johnson County are paying their fair share of taxes, Sullivan added, and nothing more or less. “The fairest in Iowa. And the guy to thank is Bill Greazel.”
Though the position serves Johnson County, the assessor is not an employee of the county. The position is appointed by a conference board comprising Johnson County mayors, school board members and supervisors. The office will now be headed by newly-appointed assessor Tom Van Buer, who has served as a Depty Assessor for the City of Dubuque since 2012.
Greazel was first appointed in 2013, and an appointment to the six-year term is just the beginning. Assessors are required to take 150 hours of continuing education each term, 90 of which are tested “to higher standards than doctors,” Greazel joked, and an examining board reviews the applicants at each new term. The office is funded by its own levy, which gives it independence.
“It’s designed to be insulated from the political process, so we are not under political pressure to create more revenue. It also creates a greater burden on us to do our job well, because there is nowhere to pass the buck,” he said.
Even though the office has five other field appraisers, Greazel kept his clients in Sharon and Washington townships. It’s where he learned another of his most important lessons about what is truly valuable.
“One of the joys of my office is that you meet so many people with such diverse perspectives,” he said. He has particularly enjoyed getting to know the Amish populations in those two townships and the way they view material goods in relationship to life.
“There is no correlation between the size of your house and the happiness within it,” Greazel said. “Some of the happiest people I know have the least. You know what I’ve never seen on an Amish kitchen table? A bottle of Tums.”
The people he has come to know will be the hardest part of leaving his position, Greazel said, but he will continue to fill his time volunteering for Habitat for Humanity as he has for some time, and wants to start an “alternative coffee group for people who have something to talk about.”
At 67 years old, he is also ready to spend time with his grandchildren in Portland, Chicago and Nashville.
“Janet has our schedule full for the next three months, I think,” he added.
As is his style, Greazel relates it all with generous laughter and a sense of humor, which he claims has been a very important tool in his long career.
“There is no better way to disarm a negative attitude than to make people laugh,” Greazel said. “Without a sense of humor, it’s hard to do a difficult job.”
It’s one characteristic he has always looked for in the personnel he has hired over the year, a staff he feels fortunate to have worked with.
“Very few people can say they had a job they enjoyed for 42 years. I’ve had good people to work with and really enjoyable customers. I hope most people can say that about their careers, but I’m probably one of the luckier ones.
“And to think, it was an accident to begin with. Sometimes, those are the best things that happen to us.”