Wallace retiring after 35 years with cityHudson was a different community when Mike Wallace began as the city assessor and building inspector 35 years ago.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Hudson was a different community when Mike Wallace began as the city assessor and building inspector 35 years ago.
The total assessed value of taxable property in the city was $35 million. There were 11 or 12 commercial buildings south of I-94. Wallace could name the families living in many of the houses he drove past.
“We’re beyond the point where I know that anymore. Like a lot of the longtime residents, I could probably do a better job of telling you who lived there 30 years ago,” Wallace said in a late-June interview in his third-floor office in City Hall.
Wallace will retire at the end of July.
His first day on the job after being hired by Mayor William T. Heffron and the City Council was Sept. 1, 1974.
Wallace was five years out of Hudson High School, having graduated in 1969. He attended Wisconsin State University at River Falls for two years before catching on with an appraisal firm, which led to his position with the city.
The city he is leaving has a total valuation of $1.5 billion (close to 43 times the 1974 valuation) and more commercial buildings and residences south of I-94 than he can number without research.
“There’s a lot,” he said.
The city’s population has grown from 5,426 when he was hired to 12,196, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wallace became an assessor/building inspector almost by chance.
The city of Hudson was doing a revaluation of property in 1971. The local youth hired by an appraisal firm to assist with the basic data gathering (Peter Iverson) was returning to college at the end of the summer and the company needed someone to finish the project.
Wallace decided to forego the next semester of college and took the job.
When Hudson’s revaluation was completed, the firm, Appraisal Associates, offered him a permanent position.
He spent three years with the company in Barron. Then Hudson’s assessor and building inspector, William “Kerm” Tifft, retired.
“He retired and I applied for the job. And here we are,” Wallace said with a smile.
The state of Wisconsin wasn’t licensing assessors or building inspectors yet when Wallace went to work for the city. There wasn’t a building code for one- and two-family dwellings either.
“The vast majority of Wisconsin assessors at that time were retired farmers,” he said, noting that most assessors worked for one or more of Wisconsin’s 1,300 towns.
Wallace got on-the-job training with Appraisal Associates and took courses from the now-defunct Society of Real Estate Appraisers.
By the late 1970s, the state was requiring assessors and building inspectors to be certified. Wallace wrote and passed all of the required exams – and continued his training through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue for the rest of his career.
“It’s a profession that obligates you to be continually educating yourself,” he said. “Because, let’s face it, the technology is changing every single day. What you knew and what was applicable four years ago, in a lot of cases, is no longer applicable. In some cases, it’s not even permitted.”
He cited the number of solar electric panels being installed on buildings as an example of the changing technology.
Mostly the building inspector
While Wallace’s job title indicated a 50-50 split in responsibilities, the majority of his time was devoted to the building inspector role.
“During the construction boom, we spent a greater and greater percentage of time working on that,” he said.
Also, the city contracts with an appraisal company that does most of the property assessing.
That isn’t to say that Wallace wasn’t involved in the process.
“I’m still the statutory assessor. I’m the guy who signs his name on the assessment roll testifying to its accuracy,” he explained. And that meant he kept an eye on what the appraisal firm was doing.
“We work with them on a very regular basis on the issues of the day,” he said.
In addition, Wallace did the personal property assessment, reported to the Department of Revenue and assisted the Board of Review, the local panel empowered to correct errors in the assessment roll.
As building inspector, he reviewed applications for and issued building permits. The job also entails doing inspections of construction projects to make sure that new buildings meet state codes.
“For a long time, my average day at the office was almost entirely related to construction projects – permitting, plan review, inspections,” Wallace said.
He said building inspections took up the biggest share of his time for most of the past 20 years. With the decline in the economy and construction, the number of inspections has fallen off in recent years.
Conflict is inevitable when your job is to tell people “on a somewhat regular basis” that their work doesn’t meet a particular requirement and has to be corrected, Wallace said.
“Nobody is too happy about having to do that, whether you’re baking cakes or writing articles,” he said. “You tend to be the bearer of bad tidings as part of the day-to-day operation.”
“So, geez, after 35 years I’ve said or done something to offend everybody,” he added with a laugh.
While the job won’t win you any popularity contests, Wallace believes it is an essential one.
“Safe buildings,” he answers without hesitation when asked how his work benefited the public.
He added that the overall performance of area builders is good.
“It’s like everything else, you have some who are more conscientious than others. Some who are more organized than others. Some of them are more knowledgeable and more capable than others,” he said. “But you know, 99 percent of the time they’re out there trying to do things right. It doesn’t mean they’re always successful, but they’re trying, just like the rest of us.”
Growing up in Hudson
Wallace grew up in the house 1225 First St.
“Idyllic,” was his one-word response to what it was like to be a boy with the St. Croix River in his backyard in the Hudson of the 1950s and ’60s. He and his friends swam, fished, rafted, ice-skated and played hockey in and on the river.
His father, Gerald Wallace, was a Northern States Power Co. executive and chief deputy sheriff of St. Croix County for 27 years. The chief deputy position was a part-time job in those days.
His mother, Kathleen, was a stay-at-home mom when he was in school. He has two sisters, Kathleen and Dianne.
Wallace’s uncle and aunt William and Lois Wallace and their daughters lived a couple of blocks away on First Street.
“So there was a time period when there was a Wallace through the school system on a class-by-class basis, just about,” he said.
Asked whether the old Hudson or new Hudson is better, Wallace replied, “Does it matter?”
“Hudson in the ’50s and ’60s was a great place to grow up. And I don’t know that that has necessarily changed,” he offered. “But it’s certainly not the small town that it was.”
Wallace’s mother, Kathleen, sold the First Street home after Gerald passed away in 1993. She moved to the Stonepine neighborhood and now has an apartment in the Red Cedar Canyon Assisted Living building.
Wallace and his wife, Janet, live on the Apple River near Star Prairie in the house they built soon after he became Hudson’s assessor and building inspector.
Janet is recently retired from a 32-year career as a speech therapist. She spent the last 28 years with the Osceola school district.
The Wallaces have one daughter, Erin, who will be a junior at UW-Eau Claire in the fall.
Wallace said he doesn’t have any big plans for retirement. He hopes to do a little more traveling and hunting and fishing. And he’ll work on the “ever-present honey-do list.”
There’s also a chance that he’ll continue his employment with the city on a part-time basis.
With construction activity down, and the city looking to reduce expenses, Assistant Assessor/Building Inspector David Gray could move into the lead role and be assisted by Wallace as the workload demands.
“It’s not going to take a huge increase in construction activity for the city to be in a position where they need to hire another full-time inspector,” Wallace said. “But obviously, with budget constraints, they’re looking to do something short-term and save some money here.”
Wallace gave a ringing endorsement of Gray, saying he is well-qualified to take over the assessor/building inspector job.
“I don’t think we could have possibly done better than the person we hired when we hired him,” Wallace said of Gray. “It should be a seamless transition. (He’s) very knowledgeable. (A) great person. (A) very good individual.”
It’s the friendships he’s formed with other city workers that makes coming back as a part-time city worker attractive, Wallace said.
He’s worked with Liz Moline, administrative assistant in the assessor/building inspector office, most of his 35 years with the city. Community Development Director Dennis Darnold is another longtime colleague and friend.
“You work closely with people for that long and it’s not just the guy in the next office,” he said. “You get pretty close. So I’m certainly going to miss the relationships with the people around here.”