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Who should do something about Natrona County property taxes?

Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating with taxpayers 5/17/22 (Gregory Hirst, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — City and county officials agree that property taxes have increased due to a continued influx of buyers inflating the market by bringing cash to bidding wars on unseen properties.

“I know that sales are crazy in terms of the residential market,” Commissioner Peter Nicolaysen said at the county commission meeting Tuesday. “Folks are coming in, paying full cash offers, and [having] bidding wars for residences. It’s hard to understand how that can be our Wyoming, but that’s the reality of where our market is, at least on the residential side.”

However, there is disagreement about what can and should be done about it, and whether the city, county, and other taxing entities could make an appreciable impact by cutting their own shares of the revenue.

There is also a state-outlined property tax relief program for counties to administer at their own expense. Filings are due June 6, and Natrona County has so far chosen not to implement it, though taxpayers can still apply for the same relief at the state level.

Both are proposals Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating has now given to city and county officials, and is circulating widely among taxpayers.

Keating reiterated his proposal to the Natrona County Commission on Tuesday, sharing public comment time with three taxpayers who were there to protest their assessments. 

The budgets for Natrona County’s public operations, including the towns, school district, and special districts, are paid for in mill levies. A mill is the number of dollars a taxpayer must pay for every $1,000 of assessed value on real property.

In the Casper tax district, 72.89 total mills are levied. The Natrona County School District gets 32.5 mills. There’s 7.39 for Casper College. Weed and Pest gets one. Commercial property owners of the Downtown Development Authority, which runs David Street Station, vote to impose an additional 16 mills on themselves to operate.

The county levies 12 mills and Casper, like any town, levies eight.

The number of mills the county levies also determines its share of state-assessed mineral extraction taxes, Keating told Oil City. Those are up about 70% this year, he estimates. By May 24, he expects to have the final report detailing just how much more revenue minerals will bring, per mill, to any taxing authority.

“They could adjust the mills down, and continue to receive the same revenue from property taxes that they got last year,” Keating said.

City Manager Carter Napier told Oil City that Keating’s public comments on the strategy are giving a distorted impression that city leaders have some authority over assessments.

While city and county officials have nothing do with the value a property is assessed at, the mills they set are a function of the final bill. The mills are fixed annually by each taxing authority, including Casper, Bar Nunn, and Natrona County.

“They do set the tax ‘rate’,” Keating said.

The number of mills that can be imposed is determined by the state. Napier and Bertoglio said that in all but two counties, the taxing entities levy the maximum. Casper and Natrona County have done so for at least 20 years or more. Reducing them, they say, would make very little difference in the final tax bill.

If the county or city were to give up a mill each, the final bill for a property assessed at $300,000 would drop from $2,052 to $1,995, according to the state formula. Bertoglio and Napier say the difference is next to negligible.

Keating says that “it makes a difference” nevertheless.

Bertoglio and city officials added that taxing entities that don’t max out their mills become ineligible for some grants from the State Loan and Investment Board. Furthermore, cities and counties are also facing the same inflated fuel and materials prices for their operations.

“We absolutely need the money,” Napier said. “We’ve got employees that need raises, we’ve got fuels going through the roof.”

The other remedy Keating is advocating for is Senate File 19, passed by the state this year. That bill gives counties the option to implement a refund program. It would be funded exclusively from the county’s operating budget, and not from the any of the other taxing authorities.

To qualify, household income must be less than three-quarters of the county median. Household assets can’t exceed $100,000, and each adult can only have one personal vehicle. All of this requires extensive vetting of personal finances, which is difficult to administer and dissuades many applicants, Commissioner Rob Hendry told Oil City.

“Who’s going to administer this?” Bertoglio said. 

“They’re balking at that because they are not getting any ‘clawback,’“ Keating said.

The deadline for counties to administer SF19 is June 6. There are two relief programs currently available in Natrona County — one for veterans and another offering deferrals for seniors on fixed incomes.

Beyond the impact of mill levies, Keating and some commissioners agree that reforms should come from the state level. When the BOCC hears cases as the county board of equalization, it cannot set a value. It can only uphold or remand an assessment, in which case it goes to the state — and sometimes comes back again. 

“Very seldom do we get to make any changes to it,” Bertoglio told the public Tuesday. “This is a process that’s run by the Department of Revenue and the state. And that includes the Assessor’s office. They have rules that they’re under.”

Keating said he supports the resurrection of House Bill 99, which would cap annual property tax increases at 3%. He also said that the state could lower the amount of mills a taxing authority can impose, or lower the 9.5% assessment rate, once a mill starts generating a certain amount of revenue.

Commissioner Jim Milne encouraged the public Tuesday to contact their state elected legislators and Senators to take up any number of remedies that have been proposed since last summer.

“The state legislature is where this is going to be fixed,” Milne said. “There’s nothing we’re going to be able to do as far as property tax value, the percentage that it goes up and down.”

Bertoglio and Keating both encouraged taxpayers with concerns to bring their cases to Keating. Two of the three taxpayers speaking to the commission Tuesday said Keating’s reviews of prior accounts had cut down on their final bill.

Formal property tax protests are due June 3 by 5 p.m.

“I would encourage people to come in and sit down and we have the conversation and review their account,” Keating said. One account was revised after it was learned the building, formerly a commercial property, had been renovated and was now being used as a residence. Some properties may sit on rugged topography that makes it unusable for building or development, lowering the value. Those characteristics are determined through field appraisals, conducted on each property once every six years, and may not be in the system unless the account is reviewed.

Though the commission agrees that the process is, generally, properly applied, there are still anomalies that stretch credulity, particularly in unincorporated areas. Hendry said he is protesting the property tax on his ranch. 

“Our ranch was hit really hard by those, too,” Nicolaysen said. “And I have no understanding of the basis for the increase in that rangeland. My house was raised to a percentage level I can’t explain either,” he said.

The impact is leaving many longtime residents profoundly discouraged.

“It seems like no one cares. No one fights for Mr. Joe Public anymore,” Jeff Swikusky told the commission, reporting a 500% increase on vacant land. “At this point, sometimes I wonder if Wyoming is really the place to be, and that really hurts when I think that way. I wish we could find a way to alleviate some of these increases.”

Keating says he sees and sympathizes with those like Swikusky, which is why he’s advocating for the state reforms and relief programs.

“It’s a good system that we have, but it’s poorly managed,” he said. “This whole process we’re using is running people over.”

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