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(OPINION) Candidate Letter: Natrona County Assessor’s Office following state law; more work to do to make it better

Matt Keating, Natrona County Assessor

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In 2018, Tammy Salisbury was the interim assessor who had 1,229 formal and informal appeals.The values on all appeals were changed enough that they were all withdrawn. That year, the Natrona County Commissioners heard zero appeals.

On Dec. 16, 2021, Marty Hardsocg, the State Board of Equalization vice chair, testified in front of the Joint Revenue Committee, and I quote, the previous administration had “misused the process enough that basically the numbers were doctored.”

On June 28 of this year, the State Board of Equalization approved my abstract. The state board took a detailed look into my statistics and my process. No matter who holds this office next year, compliance with state statute will be required or that assessor can be removed from office by the Department of Revenue.

In 2018, I ran to become the assessor on the platform that the office was broken. On Jan. 7, 2019, I began the overhaul of the Natrona County Assessor’s Office. The State Board of Equalization has oversight over all 23 assessor offices across the state. Natrona County was placed under a work order mandating that we work closely with the Department of Revenue to bring this office back into compliance with state statute and the parameters required with the State Board of Equalization. After three years, we are producing a quality product but there is still work to be done to make a better. All members of the state board signed a letter saying that they will “trumpet to all concerned my Herculean efforts to bring this office back into compliance.”

Home values are up dramatically across Wyoming. On June 27, the director of the Department of Revenue testified in front of the working group of the Joint Revenue Committee. The director stated that there is balance in this system when taxing entities adjust their mill levies (tax rates) to meet their budgets. I testified that this is not happening in Natrona County.

All taxing entities have set their tax rate at their max level. I have asked several entities to lower their tax rate down to a level where they could receive the same revenue that they received last year. This would have resulted in a 20% reduction in our property tax bills across the board. All tax rates in Natrona County remained at their statutory max.

When a market value goes up and the tax rate does not come down, the tax bill goes up.

To be fair, there are tax rate tests for entities when they apply for a state or federal grant. The state Loan and Investment Board has such a tax rate test. I wrote the governor a letter asking that they consider still allowing entities to be eligible for the state grants while assessing a lower tax rate. I have not received an answer. Teton, Fremont, Converse, Campbell and Laramie counties have a mill set less than the max.

A growing number of taxpayers are asking me why their values are being affected by all these people coming in from out of state. The current state statute mandates that we set our values to fair market value. I am hearing that the housing market is maybe beginning to slow, but it is not yet reflected in the sales that we are seeing.

We are all feeling the effects of inflation. The state of Wyoming in April of this year said transportation inflation is 22.1%. Fertilizer, water and diesel costs are up for our agricultural community. It only compounds our financial burden that property taxes are tied to the fair market of our homes.

Home values are up here and across the state. I believe we have the ear of our legislators across the state. Natrona County increased 20% over last year. Eight other counties have a larger increase than we do.

I also recently testified in front of a working group of the Joint Revenue Committee advocating for a hybrid of a 3% cap and acquisition values. A 3% cap would put an end to large changes in our tax bills. There is no cap on how much a tax bill can increase in Wyoming. Using what you paid for the property would stop the out-of-state influence affecting our Wyoming residents who have lived here for many years.

A few months ago, a lady came into my office crying. She proceeded to tell me her story of how her husband was burned in a fire. She spends her day taking care of him. She could not afford the $1,200 in taxes on her home because they are living on $900 per month from Social Security. I told this story to the Legislature hoping they would fund the Property Tax Relief Program. The state did fund the program, and I had the information printed on the back of the 47,000 notices of value that this office mailed.

We also need a mechanism to ensure our aging community will never lose their home because they cannot pay the tax owed. When an elderly person finds themselves living on Social Security alone, their options to keep their home are limited. What happens when the taxes on their homes are due and they can’t pay?

1. The first year the taxes are not paid the debt goes to a tax sale. If this continues, the fifth year a tax deed is issued and they no longer own their home.

2. If they have a reverse mortgage, they have agreed to maintain the house, it’s taxes and insurance. Defaulting on any of these is a breach of contract in the mortgage holder may foreclose.

3. If a homeowner participates in the property tax deferral program in the debt of the home reaches market value, the holder of the reverse mortgage may foreclose.

As of this year, personal property with a value at or below $2,400 is seen as de minimis under 39-11-105(a)(xlii), the Property Tax Refund Program. I think a blending of both the exempting of personal property and the Department of Revenue’s tax relief program would be a solution for the elderly who are at risk of losing their homes. My suggestion is a blending of the Property Tax Relief Program under W.S. 39-3-109(c)(v) and the Personal Property Program making the tax de minimis.

All these suggestions that I have made I’ve related to our governor and our legislators. The solutions to improve the system we have has to happen at the legislative level. I would encourage all Natrona County taxpayers to reach out to Rep. Harshman (Natrona County) and Sen. Case (Fremont County), who chair and co-chair the Joint Revenue Committee. Advocate what I have suggested, or please give your own ideas.

I really believe more than any other year we will be able to make a difference to make the needed changes to improve the system we have in place today. Please reach out to me with any questions or comments. I am looking forward to hearing from you and working with you.

Thank you,

Matt Keating

Natrona County Assessor