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Natrona County property tax saga guides legislative subcommittee

Natrona County Chairman Paul Bertoglio (center left), former Johnson County Assessor Cindy Barlow (far right) and property tax protestors at the state joint revenue committee meeting Sept. 30 (Wyoming Legislature, YouTube)

CASPER, Wyo. — The now-infamous ordeal of the over 3,100 property tax protests in Natrona County in 2020 gave the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee some guidance for potential reforms when they met in Casper on September 30.

Of those appeals, roughly 1,900 were scheduled to go before the Natrona County Board of Equalization (BOE), made up of the Natrona County Commission.

The Commission’s Chairman Paul Bertoglio told the committee about the arduous four-month process of hearing the cases and the commission’s limited authority to mediate them. 

Converse County Assessor Dixie Huxtable, speaking for the Wyoming County Assessor’s Association, told the committee that the county BOEs cannot set a property value, they can only affirm the assessor’s decision or remand it back based on information at the hearings. 

The committee also heard from Natrona County property owners detailing their cases. It also heard from former Johnson County Assessor Cindy Barlow, who represented dozens of clients at the BOE hearings.

A four-person subcommittee, including House 58 Representative Chuck Gray, is now tasked with drafting legislation that could address some of the issues that led to the unprecedented number of cases. Those included possibly modifying the 30-day window in which taxpayers have to file protests, changing Wyoming’s status as a non-disclosure state concerning real estate sales, and re-examining the statutory presumption that assessments are accurate.

Before then-commissioner Matt Keating became assessor in 2019, Natrona County had been out of statistical compliance with state’s mandate, and many properties were undervalued. Wyoming (and assessors offices across the country) use the Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) system, which determines value in part by using all valid sales of properties in a similar Land Economic Area (typically a neighborhood).

Fee appraisals, which people might use to secure or refinance a mortgage, cannot be used in the CAMA system.

The Wyoming State Board of Equalization put Keating’s office under a work order in 2019, having found “under-valuation and non-uniformity in nearly all categories” in previous years.

To meet compliance, Keating and his staff undertook to redraw Land Economic Areas, which brought many new values into statistical compliance, but raised (and in some cases, multiplied) final assessments.

Another problem, Bertoglio said, was that characteristic adjustments to properties (such as topographical features that affect the ability to develop land) had been backed out of the system.

While many of the new prices brought the overall valuations into compliance, some individual protestors said their land was being valued at the same rate as land in neighborhoods of a vastly different character.

But Bertoglio said that the county had no choice but to affirm Keating’s assessments in many cases. Though both he and Keating have said that some mistakes were made in individual cases, they said the methodology applied was proper.

“The assessor followed the rules,” he said, “and as a Board of Equalization, if they follow the rules, we literally have to reaffirm, even if it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The ability of property tax protestors to make their cases at the hearings was also an area considered for reform. Taxpayers have 30 days after the postmark on the Notices of Assessment, which are mailed by the fourth Monday in April.

Gray said he had heard from some constituents who, because they checked their mail irregularly, ended up with only 10 days to consider appealing.

Barlow added that the process of fighting valuations is overwhelming and burdensome, and that some her clients were not given the sales data the assessor used to determine values until very near the date of their hearings, if at all.

The sales data used to determine values is not public information, because Wyoming is a non-disclosure state. It can only be attained through the “exchange of evidence” process between the protestor and the assessor’s office. 

Even with the evidence in hand, Barlow said ordinary citizens are often at a loss as to how to use it to build their case.

“It has turned out to be a bullying process, one that intimidates the taxpayer and forces them to hire an attorney and causes them an exponential expense that sometimes far outweighs the tax,” Barlow told the committee.

Barlow and property tax protestor John Burd told the committee that re-evaluating Wyoming’s non-disclosure status (making relevant sales data freely accessible year-round) would be the most immediate action the committee could take to give taxpayers a realistic chance of mounting a fair protest.

“We need to be able to see the sales price,” Barlow said. “We need to be able to have that data to affirm that the numbers used by the assessor are correct.”

Gray said he’d also consider resurrecting a bill he co-sponsored earlier this year, capping the increase of property tax valuations in any one year to 3%, not including any value increases attributable to “changes, additions, reductions or improvements to the property made in the prior year.”

Bertogli said there have been about 300 property tax protests in 2021.