Natrona County Courthouse (Creative Commons)

CASPER, Wyo — The Natrona County Commission will assume its duties as the county Board of Equalization on Nov. 16 as it begins to hear over 1,900 formal appeals protesting the 2020 property tax valuations of Assessor Matt Keating.

The county commissioners are set to discuss the matter further in their regular work session this Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Hearing logistics

Between 15 and 20 cases are scheduled for the first four days of hearings, Commission Chairman Rob Hendry told Oil City News, and he expects the board to begin hearings from 8:00 am until at least 5:00 pm most days. If 20 cases are heard per day, it will take about 95 business days to complete them all.

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Former Natrona County Attorneys Heather Duncan-Malone and Bill Knight are acting as hearing officers. They are tasked making sure that 20 days’ notice is given to claimants before their scheduled hearings.

Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson will vet the proceedings from a legal standpoint. Though Nelson technically represents the Assessor’s Office, it is up to Keating to defend his assessments, Hendry said.  

“In my experience, half of [the protestors] don’t show up,” Knight told the commissioners in a work session this October.

Commissioner Brook Kaufman insisted that notices sent to taxpayers be followed with phone calls in order to ensure that those with hearings scheduled actually attend. Teleconference options are also being secured in light on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Hendry said the hearing examiners are also trying to group claimants by the nature of their protests in hopes that similar cases can be addressed simultaneously. Some claimants have multiple accounts or are being represented by Casper realtors, former Wyoming assessors, or attornies. 

The Board of Equalization will begin the hearings mostly with those who are unrepresented and did not submit any evidence disputing their cases.

Either the Assessor or the taxpayer can appeal their cases further to the Wyoming State Board of Equalization.

A beleaguered office

Last year, the first of Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating’s term in office, 80 cases ended up before the board, though there there were 1,748 informal appeals, with some people saying their property taxes have multiplied from previous years.

At a town hall-style meeting between the Assessor’s Office and taxpayers in this July, Keating said that by the time his office was able to address those appeals, the 30-day window to file a formal appeal had expired.

This year, the Assessor’s office encouraged residents to file a formal appeal, which could be reviewed outside the 30-day window. Over 3,100 were filed this year. Since then, a number of accounts have either been denied a change or were adjusted, and thus withdrew.

Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson told Oil City News that the nature of plaintiff’s cases “run the gamut” of challenges, but there are a few major themes revolving around the two distinct factors that make up total assessments.

Total property tax assessments are the sum of two values. One is the value of the land a property sits on, determined by Land Economic Area (LEA) stratification. LEAs are geographic areas that encompass one or more neighborhoods that are “more or less equally” to economic forces.

The other is the value of the property itself and is determined by the cost to replace the property, minus market depreciation. Nelson said disputes to both data sets characterized many of the appeals.

Coming into Compliance – ‘We did not raise taxes’

“We did not raise taxes,” Keating explained at the July meeting. “We re-stratified and brought things into statistical compliance. We had thousands of properties that hadn’t been re-evaluated in a number of years.”

“You might say you were taxed less over the last several years than was actually warranted,”  Keating told one taxpayer.

“The make-up is a killer,” the citizen replied.

Wyoming and nearly all assessors nationwide use the Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal to determine what the value of homes in particular LEA. Those values are determined data from “all valid” real estate transactions recorded by the County Clerk’s Office. Fee market appraisals can’t be used as evidence in property tax valuations.

The model plots all this data for each LEA and, by Wyoming state statute, the land value assessments made by the Assessor must be statistically similar to the model.  

According to Keating (and confirmed to Oil City News by Wyoming State Board of Equalization Vice Chairman E. Jayne Mockler), the Natrona County Assessor’s Office had been out of compliance for a number of years before Keating took over.

In summer 2019, the state BOE put Keating’s office under a Work Order to get the LEA data to match the models produced by relevant sales data, having found “under-valuation and non-uniformity in nearly all categories,” previously.

In June of 2020, Keating said the state BOE had “approved our abstract and approved our numbers. They saw our statistics, they were sent all the sales, and they signed off it.” 

“This is the first time in at least 5 years that the Natrona County Assessor can say that we have applied the Mass Appraisal System fairly and equitably,” he said.

“The sales that we used are meeting all statistical bounds and we’re applying it appropriately; that is the evidence that we’ll be taking the county board,” Keating said.

LEAs

At the July public meeting, Keating likened the LEAs in the Assessor’s office when he took over to a “junk drawer.”

Corrie Cabral, one of his staff who handled the 2020 restratification, said previous LEAs had grouped properties on Casper Mountain with properties on 13th street in town as an example. 

“We couldn’t find any rhyme or reason for that,” she said.

But taxpayers at the meeting said the new LEAs didn’t make sense to them. They said their LEAs have been valued the same as areas where homes sell for far more. 

John Burd, who is acting as his girlfriend’s representative in her case appeal, said that her land in Midwest Heights off Salt Creek Highway (what Burd called “the poorest of the poor,” an area with dirt roads and mobile homes) was being valued the same as lots along Garden Creek Highway, where homes sell for far more.

One taxpayer at the July meeting said he lived in a subdivision with dirt roads, mobile homes, a deteriorating vacant house, and no sewer system.

“I look at my assessments from my land and they’re very similar to other pieces of property down the road that are paved roads, have sewer systems, and are really nice neighborhoods,” he said.

House 58 Rep Pat Sweeney told Oil City News that his own property in North Casper had gone up 333% after being $3 per square foot for years. He said his land was now valued the same as land in Centennial Hills.

“The taxpayer doesn’t feel like their land is like the comparisons that were used,” Hendry said, adding that this was the first year that land values figured so prominently in the disputes.

Characteristics

The other piece of property taxes besides the land is the value of the home itself. The assessor’s office is meant to keep data on factors that could affect a home’s value (modifications, additions, fenestration). The assessor’s office is required to visit every property at least once every six years to take these attributes into account when determining the “price-per-square-foot” of a residence.

“I have a piece of property that’s half a hillside,” said one resident at the public meeting in July,  “I can’t build on that. And it’s valued the same as lots that are flat and you can build on the entire lot.”

County attorney Eric Nelson told Oil City News in a phone interview that  “My understanding is a lot of that [home characteristic data] was backed out of the system and they built those from the ground up.”

Frustrations

In 2019, the state board acknowledged some of Keating’s concerns in their work order due to previous Assessor’s Offices’ “failure to update and manage property files following property sales, failure to include all property in assessments, failure to physically visit property at least once every six years, and understaffing.”

Keating has often said (and the state board acknowledged) that Laramie County employs 21 staff in its assessors office to Keating’s 13.5 to handle a similar number of accounts, making it untenable to catalogue all relevant characteristics to properties in the county.

The state board found that primary reason for Natrona County’s noncompliance was that the Assessor’s Office “has lacked continuity and adequate staffing.”

“Four assessors have occupied that office from 2013 to 2019,” the state board said. “With each change of assessor, staff turnover and loss of institutional expertise has occurred.”

Reviewing accounts and building evidence requires the Assessor’s staff to conduct field assessments to build characteristics back into the system. Those assessments were ongoing throughout the summer and fall. Keating also told Oil City News in September that some adjustments to LEA’s had been made.

“Did we get some wrong?” Keating said to the public in July. “Yes… “There are pockets we need to work on and we will continue to do that.”

What is clear is that many taxpayers were simply shocked to see their tax valuations rise so much, and they aren’t soothed by the fact that statistical models now show the assessments are in compliance.

“It’s excessive taxation in my mind,” said one resident at the public meeting in July, which drew some applause from the audience.

“I understand the model and what the state says, but it’s not our fault, or your fault either… is there any way to trickle it in over 2-3 years?” 

Keating said it would be up to the state legislature to put a cap on year-to-year percent-increase of property tax valuations. Sweeney and other legislators have said they would support such a measure.

Keating also said bad timing had worsened the optics for his office. “We used sales [data] from 2019, which economically was a good year, then mailed [valuations] in a downturn. I couldn’t have planned it any worse.”

Those valuations were mailed in April, at the height of the public lockdown due to the coronavirus. Keating’s office opened May 11 by appointment only, though the courthouse proper didn’t open until May 26. The deadline to file formal appeals was May 29.

One resident said that time window between formal valuation notice and formal appeal filing deadline was undue burden on himself and many others grappling with the coronavirus. 

“I feel like a criminal, like I have to prove myself innocent,”  the man said. “We should not have to go to these lengths to prove ourselves innocent.”

The complex and statistical nature of the evidence and models used by the Assessor’s office  is also a major barrier to taxpayers advocating for themselves, Sweeney said. John Burd told Oil City News that he felt many of the original 3,100 appeals had withdrawn after being discouraged by the process.

He also said he’d spoken to attorneys to explore petitioning the governor to have Keating removed from office, but that those attorney’s were “scratching their heads” trying to determine who could navigate the process and the relevant statutes to advance the case

Whether or not LEA’s were appropriately compared or valid characteristic data properly retained will be parsed in depth at the upcoming hearings.

“That’s why we have the hearings; we need to find out,” Hendry said.

“I’m sure we’ll all be quasi experts by the end of this,” Nelson said.

Fun Facts

At the July public meeting, Keating estimated the total land values in Natrona County at $1.2 billion.

“What do property taxes pay for?”

A mill levy is the number of dollars a taxpayer must pay for every $1,000 of assessed value on real property.

In Casper tax district, 72.89 mills are levied for the following services:

  • Casper College: 7.39 mills
  • Natrona County School District: 32.5 mills
  • Natrona County General Fund: 12 mills
  • County Weed & Pest: 1 mill
  • Municipal Levies: 8 mills