April 01, 2023

COLUMN: Much needs to be reassessed

For those of you who were passing a kidney stone last Thursday, I’m jealous.

You probably felt better than I did, and maybe a few others who were in the same room.

The Union County Conference Board was reviewing and debating and debating certain parts of the fiscal year 2024 budget as written by Assessor Mindy Schaefer. The board is made up of representatives of taxing entities within the county, mainly the county, towns and the two school districts.

Earlier in the month, Mindy proposed an 8% pay raise plus a $4,000 pay adjustment to get her closer to what she thinks the job should be paid. She’s had the position since 2019 and is in her second six-year term. Board members were concerned with the amounts she asked. They never said she was doing less-than-acceptable work but didn’t think her numbers could be justified. The math turned out to be a 13% increase.

The discussion never got heated. It was firm and serious. It fortunately had its limits. It was difficult for me to observe.

Schaefer is the only department head in Union County who does not have representation on the county compensation board. That is one way the state regulates that position. Comp board members can research every statistic created to come up with a recommendation on why they think the elected officials should get X amount more. They have suggested 10% but the board of supervisors have not yet taken any action.

Mindy is her own comp board. She has to do her own research, and was asked to do more by her own board. She has to be her own advocate because the state won’t allow anyone to do it for her. Kudos to county assessor staff members who support their leader. What Mindy originally proposed is for another discussion. She was doing what she thought was the right thing since nothing else tells her not to; until she gets to her board. If you read job-searching resources, all of them state to determine your worth.

Iowa and its public entities have been misguided on public official pay. For years prior, it was common for a number of Iowa counties to say the phrases “tight budget” and “limited money” but when legislators and Gov. Reynolds approved Back the Blue which allowed additional funds to be directed only toward more pay for law enforcement, those phrases were proverbially put behind bars. And some counties were rather generous. Did legislators and Reynolds always think those counties always had plenty of discretionary funds but only to be spent on law enforcement? There are well deserving officers, but that pay strategy was organized by the seats of pants.

I know of another Iowa county that hired an assessor with no experience to replace one who retired after about 25 years. The new one got the same pay as if the previous one would have not retired. There was no rookie-level pay range even considered. I know of an Iowa public school district that hired a first-year superintendent and the pay was more than the experienced predecessor. They both had the same duties.

County auditors, including Union’s Sandy Hysell, can have their work be considered crimes as the result of voter reform in 2021. Depending upon which attorney you listen to, auditors can be held liable for what a nefarious voter does despite the auditor not having any influence or prior knowledge of the incident. Shouldn’t that level of heightened responsibility be reflected in pay? I saw no evidence legislators considered that, like they did with Back the Blue after riots across the country in 2020.

Iowa legislators should consider restructuring the county assessor regulations. Assessors are appointed, not elected. That is based on keeping the position neutral from politics. The Swiss cheese I bought last week had fewer holes than that. Everything is politicized these days including household appliances. The big-box stores, which have a reputation of annually appealing, or suing, over their property taxes and they don’t care if the assessor would be a Republican, Democrat or the Pope.

I haven’t decided yet if the assessor should be elected since I think there is a good argument for the education and experience needed to be at least an adequate assessor. Schaefer said her courses are up to date and ongoing.

Here in Union County, Mindy shares the same courthouse building with the other elected officials and their staffs, which pay is reflected by the department heads.

It’s time for assessors to be treated more like the others.

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.