The Elbert Files: Maloney is a rare public official
Friday, March 14, 2014 7:00 AM
Polk County Assessor Jim Maloney will retire April 15 at the age of 75, ending 45 years of public service, during which he created one of the most useful government websites anywhere.
And he did it without fanfare or problems, in marked contrast with the difficulties associated with today’s government health care websites.
Nor was Maloney ever embroiled in a major controversy, even though his job involved delivering bad news in the form of higher assessments to businesses and homeowners.
Maloney succeeded by using technology to create a transparency that effectively defused taxpayer wrath. And when the news was really bad, he got in front of it, telling people what they did not want to hear – that assessments were going up – and why.
His was a career that no one could have imagined when Maloney was growing up in rural northeast Polk County during the 1940s and ‘50s.
He graduated in 1961 from Marquette University in Milwaukee with a degree in business administration. That’s significant, because the Jesuit priests who run the school infuse students with a type of calm, quiet logic that has been a hallmark of Maloney’s career.
After college, Maloney returned to Polk County and ran as a Democrat for a seat in the Iowa House in 1966.
He served one term before party boss Floyd Gillotti persuaded him to run for county auditor in 1968. Gillotti is largely forgotten today, but at the time, he was a key figure in Des Moines’ south side Italian community, where he was known as “the mayor of South Des Moines.”
Maloney, who came from a large Irish family, married Sharon Mauro, whose family had deep south side roots.
Her cousins include Polk County Supervisor John Mauro and his brother, Mike Mauro, who was county auditor and Iowa’s secretary of state and is currently Iowa’s labor commissioner.
“Politically, it was a great combination between my cousins up north and Sharon’s family in Des Moines,” Maloney said.
Running for auditor was an easy choice because unlike the state Legislature, the auditor was a full-time position with full-time pay. Maloney won and quietly ran the office for several years.
In the mid-1970s, he faced what he says was the toughest decision of his career. Francis Whitehurst, chief of the auditor’s tax division, wanted Maloney to do something that no other county was doing, buy a computer and automate the office’s real estate transfer records.
“I was not convinced,” Maloney said. But Whitehurst persisted and Maloney recalled advice that Democratic Party Chairman Lex Hawkins had offered years earlier.
“If you just give good service, you can stay in office as long as you want,” Hawkins had said.
Maloney agreed to automate the records.
“All of a sudden, information was so much easier to find,” he said. “They could call us on the phone, and we could give them an answer without having to call them back.”
“That was a really huge lesson to me. After that, we put the pedal to the metal for all of the things that followed,” he said.
What followed was Maloney’s move from auditor to city assessor in 1984 and in 1997, when county assessor Jack Newell retired, the city and county assessors offices were combined with Maloney in charge.
Along the way, he hired computer programmers who created and repeatedly upgraded a website that allows homeowners to view the history of their own property assessments, as well as that of neighbors and other comparable properties.
That transparency allows taxpayers to determine for themselves the fairness of an assessment. And if someone believes an assessment is too high, that homeowner can easily find comparable information and challenge the assessment.
Have a great retirement, Jim.
You’ve earned it.
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