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County begins hearing over 350 property tax protests, about 1,550 fewer than in 2020

Natrona County Courthouse (Creative Commons)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Natrona County Commission has again resumed its duties as the Board of Equalization beginning Monday to hear over 350 formal property tax protests. Last year, there were over 1,900 formal appeals.

The commission cannot compromise or change an assessed value; it can only affirm the assessor’s decision or remand the decision back to the assessor’s office.

In rare instances, the hearings unearth factors that Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating’s office can address, but the majority of cases remanded back are then appealed to Wyoming State Board of Equalization.

Shortly after Keating took over the office in 2019, the Wyoming State Board of Equalization put the office under a work order, having found “under-valuation and non-uniformity in nearly all categories” over previous administrations.

Home values were out of the state’s mandated statistical compliance with the Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal system, a mostly nationwide standard for assessors. Fee or market appraisals cannot be used to for assessments.

As one part of meeting compliance, Keating and his staff undertook to redraw Land Economic Areas, which are areas (typically neighborhoods) where all valid sales are used to determine the value of land a property sits on.

While many of the new prices brought the overall valuations into compliance, many final assessments went up drastically, and in some cases multiplied. Some individual protestors also said their land was being valued at the same rate as land in neighborhoods of a vastly different character.

Correcting that historical undervaluation resulted in what Keating has described as “sticker-shock.” Speaking to Oil City this week about the drastically reduced number of formal appeals this year, Keating said that some of that sticker shock may have been absorbed.

Keating also credits his staff’s continued refinement of the 2020 mass redraw of LEAs, (which he admits were imperfect) for improving some assessments.

A letter from the state board of equalization to Keating in October commends his office’s efforts to come into statistical compliance, saying he is “by all accounts trending in the right direction.”

The letter also acknowledges the “rough patches” and “heavy criticism from various sectors,” including the county commission.

Speaking to Oil City News about the glowing letter, Commissioner Chair Paul Bertoglio said, “Come sit in our shoes.”

Bertoglio said that the commission is often faced with upholding assessments that square with required statistical models, even if the value of a specific property doesn’t pass “the smell test.”

An example from this week’s hearings comes — as most of this year’s protests do — from unincorporated areas. Bertoglio described one case of an older property west of Casper whose value was “significantly” inflated by the high turnover of sales of newer homes in the area. In such cases, properties are included with others of a different character nearby simply because there aren’t enough valid sales to create a unique LEA.

“This area creates just glaring anomalies that you just know by looking at them, and looking at stuff around them that’s sold … that the value that the taxes are based on are nowhere near correct, or [are] at least outside that range of what reasonable is.”

Bertoglio said that he wished that the commission, and the assessor himself, had greater authority to consider these individual nuances when determining a final assessment: “There should be some discretion available, somehow,” he said.

Keating and the commissioners have also acknowledged that one frustration for local property owners is that the real estate market has remained strong, including in rural areas, throughout the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and crash in the energy market, meaning assessed values have remained high.

Another frustration that it is “close to futile” for a tax protestor to effectively fight an assessment, Bertoglio said.

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, ordinary citizens are often at a loss as to how to use it to build their case, according to former Johnson County assessor Cindy Barlow, who represented dozens of Natrona County appeal cases this year.

“It’s stacked against the taxpayer,” said Commissioner Rob Hendry on Tuesday.

The now-infamous situation with property taxes in Natrona County was described in testimony this September to the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee to provide some guidance for potential reforms.

Some ideas included 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.

Keating has also advocated for the return of the state Property Tax Refund Program, which has not been funded for the past two budget cycles. Keating calls it “a circuit breaker in the mass appraisal system that provided needed relief” to elderly and fixed-income taxpayers.