Who Should Do Something About Natrona County Property Taxes?
CASPER, Wyo — City and county officials agree property taxes have risen due to a continued influx of market-inflating buyers, many of whom are contributing money to bidding wars over unseen properties.
But there’s disagreement over what can and should be done about it, and whether the city, county and other taxing entities could have a sizable impact by reducing their own shares.
There is also a state-defined program that counties can administer at their own expense. It must be filed by June 6, and Natrona County has so far chosen not to implement it.
Both are proposals Keating has now given to city and county officials and are circulating widely among ratepayers.
Keating reiterated his proposal to the Natrona County Commission on Tuesday, joining public comments from three ratepayers who were there to protest increases in their values.
Natrona County’s public operations budgets, including cities, school district, and special districts, are paid for by mill checks. A mill is the number of dollars a taxpayer must pay for every $1,000 of assessed value of real estate.
In the Casper Tax District, a total of 72.89 mills are levied. The Natrona County School District gets 32.5 million. There are 7.39 for Casper College. Weed and Pest gets one. Commercial owners of the Downtown Development Authority, which runs the David Street station, are voting to tax 16 more mills for its operation.
The county takes 12 and Casper, like any city, takes eight.
The number of mills the county levies also determines its share of state-assessed mining taxes. Those are up about 70% this year, Keating estimated. By May 24, he expects the final report to detail how much additional revenue this will bring, per thousand, to any tax authority.
“They could adjust the mills and still get the same property tax revenue they had last year,” Keating told Oil City.
City Manager Carter Napier told Oil City that Keating’s public comments on the strategy give a distorted impression that city leaders have some authority over the assessments.
While city and county officials have nothing to do with what value a property is assessed at, the mills they set are based on the final bill. Mills are set annually by each taxing authority, including Casper, Bar Nunn and Natrona County.
“They set the tax ‘rate’,” Keating said.
The number of mills that can be taxed is determined by the state. Napier and Bertoglio said all but two counties are levying the maximum, as Natrona County has done for at least 20 years.
Tax entities that do not maximize their factories become ineligible for certain State Loans and Investments and Entity Office grants, they added. Cities and counties also face the same inflated fuel and material prices in their operations.
“We absolutely need the money,” Napier said. “We have employees who need raises, we have fuels that are exploding…”
“As far as using the purse strings on taxes,” Bertoglio said Tuesday, “just to put things in perspective: if your tax bill was $720 and we cut our factories by 20%, your tax bill would jump to $ 700. The vast majority of your taxes are not set by the county.
Still, “it makes a difference,” Keating told Oil City.
The other remedy advocated by Keating is Senate Brief 19, passed by the state this year. This bill gives counties the ability to implement a reimbursement program. It would be funded exclusively from the county’s operating budget, not from other taxing authorities.
To qualify, household income must be less than three-quarters of the county median. Household assets cannot exceed $100,000 and each adult can only have one personal vehicle. All of this requires a thorough personal finance check, which is difficult to administer and deters many applicants, commissioner Rob Hendry told Oil City.
“Who is going to administer this? said Bertoglio.
“They balk at it because they don’t get any ‘payback,'” Keating said.
The deadline for counties to administer SF19 is June 6. There are currently two relief programs in Natrona County: one for veterans and another offering deferrals for seniors on fixed incomes.
Beyond the impact of taxes on mills, Keating and some commissioners agree that reforms should come from the state level. When the BOCC hears cases as a county equalization board, it cannot set a value. It can only maintain or return an assessment, in which case it goes to the state and sometimes returns again.
“Very rarely we can make changes to it,” Bertoglio told the audience on Tuesday. “This is a process run by the Department of Revenue and the State. And that includes the assessor’s office. They have rules to which they are subject.
Keating said he supports resurrecting House Bill 99, which caps annual property tax increases at 3%. He also said the state could reduce the amount of mills a taxing authority can tax once a mill starts generating a certain amount of revenue.
Commissioner Jim Milne encouraged the public on Tuesday to contact their state’s lawmakers and elected senators to consider a 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 can do about the property tax value, the percentage it goes up and down.”
Both Bertoglio and Keating encouraged concerned taxpayers to bring their cases to Keating. Two of the three ratepayers speaking to the commission said Keating’s reviews of past accounts lowered their final bill. Official property tax protests are due June 3 at 5 p.m.
Although the commission generally agrees that the process is generally correctly applied, there are still anomalies, particularly in unincorporated areas, that cause credulity. Hendry said he was protesting the property tax on his ranch.
Commissioner Peter Nicolaysen accepted.
“Our ranch was also very hard hit by these. And I have no understanding of the basis of the increase in these rangelands. My house was raised to a percentage level that I also cannot explain,” he said.
“I know the sales are crazy in terms of the residential market. People arrive, pay full cash offerings, and [having] bidding wars for residences. It’s hard to understand how this can be our Wyoming, but it’s the reality of our market, at least on the residential side.
The impact leaves many longtime residents deeply discouraged.
“It seems like no one cares. No one is fighting for Mr. Joe Public anymore,” Jeff Swikusky told the commission, reporting a 500% increase in vacant land. “At this point, I sometimes wonder if Wyoming is really the place to be, and it really hurts when I think that way. I wish we could find a way to mitigate some of these increases.
Keating says he sees and sympathizes with those like Swikusky, which is why he advocates for state reforms and relief programs.
“It’s a good system we have, but it’s poorly managed,” he said. “This whole process that we’re using is crushing people.”