'Clear as mud': Natrona County Assessor's office and citizens discuss property taxes - Casper, WY Oil City News
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‘Clear as mud’: Natrona County Assessor’s office and citizens discuss property taxes

Matt Keating and Natrona County Assessor’s Office staff host a Q-and-A session July 8, 2020 in Casper (Oil City Staff)

CASPER, Wyo —  Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating and his staff met with 45 citizens gathered at the UW Agricultural Building on Wednesday to explain the processes and formulas behind their property tax valuations and to answer general questions and concerns from citizens. Priority registration for the forum was given to those citizens who had filed formal disputes on their tax valuations.

“It was an attempt to reach out and clarify the process,” Keating told Oil City News after the 3-hour meeting, while his staff disinfected and stacked chairs. 

Over 3,000 formal appeals were filed this year, with people saying their property taxes have multiplied from previous years. Keating took over the Assessor’s Office in 2019. That year, there were 1,748 informal appeals. “By the time we got back to those people, the 30-day window had expired.” This year, the Assessor’s office encouraged residents to file a formal appeal, which could be reviewed outside the 30-day window.

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“We did not raise taxes,” Keating explained at the meeting. “We re-stratified and brought things into statistical compliance. We had thousands of properties that hadn’t been re-evaluated in a number of years.”

Keating said bad timing had worsened the optics for his office this year. “We used sales [data] from 2019, which economically was a good year, then mailed [valuations] in a downturn. I couldn’t have planned it any worse.”

Keating and his staff spent the first hour of the meeting discussing the Wyoming Department of Equalization’s CAMA (Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal) system which his office has been using to evaluate property taxes. Keating said his process had been reviewed and approved by the state Board of Equalization three times.

Matt Keating and Natrona County Assessors Office staff host a Q-and-A session July 8, 2020 in Casper (Oil City Staff)

Documents on the Natrona County Assessor’s website state: “All property is valued using sales information collected when a Real Estate transaction is recorded by the County Clerk’s Office. These documents are called a Statement of Consideration (SOC)”

“Wyoming is a non-disclosure state,” Keating said, meaning “We don’t have the authority to show the sales we use for the value,” Keating said.

 “I don’t know why that is, but that’s the law here,” Renee Berry, one of the Assessor’s staff, said.

Property taxes reflect the assessed value of the land the property sits on combined with the value of the property itself. The value of the property itself is determined by Replacement Cost New Less Depreciation (RCNLD). This reflects the cost to replace the entire property, with depreciations over the life of the home included. Adjustments up or down are made to account for amenities, additions, and energy systems.

All counties in Wyoming use the Marshall and Swift Valuation Services to determine these values. This is why individuals could not use independently-secured market appraisals in their claim disputes.

Land values are determined by stratification zones called Land Economic Areas (LEA) that group properties together based on sales and geography. They were developed so that rural parcels aren’t valued the same as neighborhood parcels. Keating likened the LEAs in the Assessor’s office when he took over to a “junk drawer.”

Corrie Cabral, who handled the 2020 rest ratification, said previous stratification grouped properties on Casper Mountain with properties on 13th street in town. “We couldn’t find any rhyme or reason for that.” She added that land values had not been revalued in some places since 2013, and that land values fluctuate in Natrona County’s boom-and-bust economy.

Cabral presented two formulas (Power Curve formula and price-per-square foot) that determine whether the land values within an LEA are sufficiently statistically similar to recorded sales in the area. Cabral said the previous Assessor’s office had been out of compliance.

“Our median has to be in statistical compliance of .90-1.10, per Department of Revenue rules, and you can see, we’re at .97,” Cabral said. Keating has copy of the statistic framed in his office.

“It’s a lot,” Cabral added. “It’s clear as mud, but that is the way it is done.”

After the breakdown of formulas, the citizens presented their side.

“‘Clear as mud,’ you’re exactly right,” said another citizen. “That’s a lot of information to try and digest. I’m afraid this is going to go on and on, and once the taxes are set, they’re set…. There’s an old saying: if you feel something is wrong, it probably is.”

One resident said the window between notice of valuations in late April and the May 29 window to file a formal appeal was a burden. “I feel like a criminal, like I have to prove myself innocent. We should not have to go to these lengths to prove ourselves innocent.”

One citizen said his property values went up $2,000 in 2 years. He acknowledged that the appraisal may have been fair, but the sudden increase was an undue burden. “Is there a way to not make it up in one year? It’s excessive taxation in my mind,” His comments drew the meeting’s only round of applause from the audience. He added, “I understand the model and what the state says, but it’s not our fault, or your fault either… is there any way to trickle it in over 2-3 years?” .

Keating said it would be up to the state legislature to put a cap on year-to-year percent-increase of property tax valuations. He added, “You might say you were taxed less in previous years.”

“The make-up is a killer,” the citizen replied.

Some residents disputed the valuation of their lands compared to others in their LEA. One citizen said his land was on a hillside that could not be built upon, and so disputed it should be valued the same as others in the area with flat land. A Casper Mountain had a similar complaint, saying his roads were dirt while other parcels on Casper Mountain parcels were paved, and that he was already paying a tax to a private community group to maintain the roads.

Keating and his staff are currently evaluating the over 3,000 appeals, including conducting field appraisals of property accounts. Their findings will be presented to the County Clerk, who will schedule a hearing for each case with the county Board of Equalization, made up of the Board of County Commissioners, after a 30-day notice with the taxpayer. Hearings are expected to last into September.

Keating’s staff said that in the course of their evaluations, they’ve been able to resolve some cases, and that 81 appeals have been withdrawn.

“They aren’t here today,” Keating said.

Oil City will update this story with an audio recording of the meeting.