Assessor disputes claim that Coralville officials get 'good deal' for being on council

Group claims three council members receiving lower property valuation, lower taxes

A political organization is accusing three Coralville City Council incumbents running for election of receiving special privileges, but the government official in charge of the information upon which that claim is based says the group is wrong.

The Iowa chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit organization that champions conservative political causes, says in a flier mailed to Coralville addresses that Bill Hoeft, Tom Gill and John Lundell get a “pretty good deal” and the “privilege” of lower property assessments for “being on the Coralville Council.”

A form of that message also ran as newspaper and Facebook advertisements this week.

The implication is their positions as elected officials led to them receiving lower property valuations, which would lower the amount of property taxes they pay.

The claim is essentially an accusation not just against the three council members but also the Johnson County Assessor’s Office because it sets the property valuations upon which taxes are assessed. County Assessor Bill Greazel on Monday disputed the charge from Americans for Prosperity.

“I was kind of miffed that they tried to draw a parallel that I was trying to show favoritism,” he said.

Lundell is one of four people running for mayor in the Nov. 5 election, with Gill and Hoeft among eight candidates seeking three seats on the five-member City Council.

The non-partisan election in this town of about 20,000 people has drawn an unprecedented amount of interest locally, statewide and even nationally.

Americans for Prosperity was founded by brothers David and Charles Koch and is perhaps best known for the more than $30 million it spent trying to defeat President Barack Obama’s reelection bid last year.

The Iowa chapter’s involvement in the Coralville race was first reported by The Gazette Oct. 2 and has since gained national attention, culminating in a front-page story in Monday’s New York Times.

Americans for Prosperity’s primary message has been criticizing Coralville’s debt – the highest per capita in the state – and its use of tax increment financing and role in the city-owned Iowa River Landing development.

By law, the organization cannot coordinate its efforts with a candidate’s campaign. Its literature has, however, critiqued the three incumbents running for election this fall: Hoeft, Gill and Lundell.

The new mailer says Hoeft has seen his “net property tax assessment” cut by 5 percent, Gill by 7 percent and Lundell by 18 percent.

It says those are for properties owned by the three men but does not provide addresses or the years of the assessments being compared. In an email, Mark Lucas, Iowa director for Americans for Prosperity, said the figures are for the property where Hoeft’s wife has her medical practice with other doctors, where Gill’s dental practice is located and a rental property for Lundell.

Lucas said he was too busy for an interview.

“I take this as a backhanded compliment from groups that have run out of things to say in the arena of ideas and discussing the issues, and now they’re resulting in personal attacks,” said Hoeft, whose home value increased 1 percent this year, according to county records.

Lundell and his wife own two rental properties on 12th Avenue in Coralville. The county assessor lowered the value of one of those this year by 18 percent and the other 19 percent. The home where they reside decreased 2 percent.

Lundell said claiming that was a privilege of being on council was “almost hilarious” because he was concerned by the decreases to the rental properties because are investments for his wife and him.

Greazel said homeowners usually do not want to their property values lowered.

“It’s like your IRA going down in value,” he said. “It’s part of your net worth.”

Gill’s dental practice is at 418 10th Ave., which saw its assessment lowered by 7 percent. That property is owned by Gill’s father and a trust of which Tom Gill said he knew little about.

Greazel said he received calls last month from two people asking questions about Gill’s dental office. He did not get the name of one of the people. He said the other was Jordan Willison, who works for a company owned by McDonald’s franchisee Kevin O’Brien, who is one of the chief critics of current Coralville leaders, and an organization led by O'Brien called Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation that is opposed to Coralville’s financial practices.

In an Oct. 24 email to Greazel provided to the Gazette in an open records request, Willison wrote that “Kevin was concerned about” why Gill’s dental office saw its valuation decreased. She said they have “poked around and asked other businesses and couldn't find another business in the same area of Coralville who had a decrease in their assessment.”

Greazel said they could have looked just across the street from Gill’s at a strip mall that saw its valuation lowered by nearly 10 percent. Both are older properties the owners are not putting money into so they are depreciating in value, he said.

Two Coralville McDonald’s overseen by O’Brien had their valuations lowered by the Assessor’s Office in 2013, with the restaurant on First Avenue decreasing 8 percent.

Willison said that she has never been in contact with anyone from Americans for Prosperity and that Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation does not support the group’s advertisement on the assessments.

Asked what she thought the significance of the lowered valuation of Gill’s dental office property was, she said: “I didn’t necessarily think it held any significance. But I thought it was weird.”

Greazel said he had nothing to gain by helping Gill, Hoeft or Lundell.

The assessor is appointed by an 18-member Conference Board made up of the county’s Board of Supervisors, the mayors of all the incorporated cities and a member from each school district in its jurisdiction. Coralville’s mayor is the lone representative from the town.

The Johnson County Assessor’s Office serves the entire county except Iowa City, which has its own assessor.

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