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Day one of Natrona County property tax hearings: 1 case heard, 20 withdrawals, more than 1,800 to go

Natrona County Courthouse (Creative Commons)

CASPER, Wyo —  The Natrona County Commissioners assumed their duties Tuesday, Nov. 24 as the county Board of Equalization (BOE) to begin hearing over 1,800 property tax protests. 21 were scheduled Tuesday, but only one case was heard. The rest either had either withdrawn, agreed to withdraw, or otherwise did not show up.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to allow the taxpayer their opportunity [to come before the Board],” said Vice-Chair Paul Bertoglio. 

Michelle Maines, the commissioner’s secretary, has been following up hearing notices with phone calls to try to ensure that people show up for their day before the board.

“It feels good to get started,” Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating told Oil City News. “We’ve been ready.” 

According to hearing officer and former Natrona County Attorney Heather-Duncan Malone, the BOE can only find in favor of the Assessor or the taxpayer, and cannot make adjustments to accounts. It is also incumbent upon the taxpayer to provide evidence or documentation sufficient to overturn the assessed value.

Either party can then appeal to the Wyoming State Board of Equalization. 

Tuesday’s case was exceptional in that the property in question was a commercial property, whereas the majority of the coming appeals are residential.

The protestor was Marc Nogle, who saw his total tax bill on 4 commercial buildings go from $1,024 in 2019 to $2,049 in 2020. Specifically, the value of one building, an abandoned veterinary clinic, went from $917 to $174,000.

“I assumed it was valued so low [previously] because it wasn’t worth anything,” Nogle said. “I don’t think $174,000 for that old vet clinic is fair.”

“I’m not saying they did it improperly given the system they have,” Nogle told Oil City News after the hearing, “but it still boils down to what an informed buyer would pay for the property.”

“I haven’t got anybody beating down my door to buy it, I’ll tell you that.”

One reason for the previous undervaluation was that a “negative economic factor” characteristic had been on the account previously that Keating and his chief analyst Corey Cabral could not justify or even identify.

The Assessor’s office is required to keep to track of “characteristics” of properties that could affect their value. In this case, removing the old adjustment, which decreased the assessed value previously, accounted for some of its increase this year, Cabral said.

“There was an adjustment on there reducing the value that we could not justify,” Keating told Oil City News. Specifically, the adjustment is known as a factor of “economic obsolescence.”

“Whenever we visit a property, we verify the characteristics on everything there,” Cabral said.

Incomplete or erroneous data on characteristics was pervasive across Natrona County accounts when Keating took over in January 2019, he said, is likely to be a factor in many upcoming hearings.

“Those factors that were on [the accounts], if there was no justification for them when we valued the building, we started fresh,” Keating said.

Rebuilding characteristic data requires Keating’s field assessment staff to physically visit each property, which much take place every six years. Keating currently has 13 staff members to manage a comparable number of accounts as Laramie County, which employs 21.

In 2019, a state board of equalization work order acknowledged some of Keating’s concerns that previous Assessor’s Offices’ “failure to update and manage property files following property sales, failure to include all property in assessments, failure to physically visit property at least once every six years, and understaffing.”

Another point of dispute on Nogle’s property was that its condition was valued as “fair.”  Nogle contends that the building is virtually unsalvageable, and should be valued as “poor.” Nevertheless, Cabral said the condition had been downgraded from “average” to fair. At the BOE hearing, she told the board the building also had to be valued based on its “intended use.”

The presence of boiler on the property also factored into the Assessor’s valuation as giving the property some viability, though Nogle said it’s been nonfunctional for some time, and is irreparable.

Nevertheless, its presence factors in the value calculated by Marshall and Swift, which assessors’ offices nationwide use. “I can’t remove a value of something that is there,” Keating said.

“The assessment system is very difficult to understand,” Nogle said. He added that, though he received a packet of evidence (along with the other protestors) from the Assessor’s office with relevant data to his account, the evidence doesn’t include previous years’ data which might inform him why his property was presumably undervalued previously. 

The board ultimately found in favor of the Assessor.

“I’m so empathic, Mr Nogle, so please forgive me,” said Commissioner Brook Kaufman, “but I don’t know if anywhere in this process we can prove that the Assessor has not followed the statute for how we evaluate this piece of property.”

“Our hands our tied,” said Commissioner Forrest Chadwick. “There’s very little we can do except what we did here today: dig deep on the individual issues.”

Chadwick added that, despite the anyone’s best efforts to apply the Mass Appraisal and Marshall and Swift assessment tools, pure and complete objectivity is next to impossible.