Sixty people sit sprawled in camp chairs at Washington Park on a Wednesday afternoon, listening intently to three candidates for Natrona County assessor make their cases.
The candidates sit on the band shell stage, two behind blue-and-red campaign signs.
Amid rising property values, a hot real estate market and nationwide inflation, it seems like nobody is happy with the tax bills that arrived in the mail this spring.
“Go Tammy!” one audience member shouts when Saulsbury says “something needs to be done” about the dramatic rise in valuations.
The moderator’s last question to candidates is: “Does a taxpayer have a fair chance to be heard on appeal?”
One man in the crowd shouts, “No!” and a chorus echoes him. “No way!”
All three candidates say yes, they do — or they should. A man stands facing the stage, holding a sign that says “Vote Matt Keating OUT! He is bad for Natrona County.”
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The crowd was much quieter for a trio of statehouse candidates whose discussion went first that night. All three of them also named increasing property taxes as a top issue.
Keating has said he’s lost friends, and even lost touch with some family members, during his 3 1/2 years in office.
Behind the podium, he tells a near-death story from his time as a firefighter.
“I thought that was a dangerous job,” he said, “until I got this one.”
The incumbent — Matt Keating
He took office in 2019, and immediately Natrona County residents say they saw their tax bills go up. Keating ran for the office, leaving his post on the commission, on the promise of fixing it. During his campaign, he criticized unreasonably high valuations and accused the office of doctoring numbers by lowering values for people who complained.
But since Keating took office, complaints of high and inconsistent values have only increased. People say their properties are being assessed at up to double the rates of their neighbors, thanks to categories that appear arbitrary and outdated. When they go in to talk to Keating, many of them leave overwhelmed and without answers. Hundreds of formal protests are filed each year, a huge uptick from single-digits before his tenure.
Keating’s refrain is that past assessors were systematically undervaluing property, meaning values in Natrona County lagged behind actual market values. The State Board of Equalization has commended his work for bringing the county into compliance. But residents who spoke with the Star-Tribune say they don’t care about compliance as much as the number at the bottom of their yearly tax bills.
The traditionalist — Tammy Saulsbury
She worked in the assessor’s office for 13 years before taking the post herself, after former assessor Connie Smith retired and passed away days later. Saulsbury was the interim county assessor for about eight months before losing reelection to Keating. She even mounted an enthusiastic write-in campaign.
When she first took the interim office, Saulsbury fired four employees on her first day. She didn’t comment on the dismissals at the time.
“When someone’s not willing to work with you, what else are you left with?” she said in a May interview. “That’s all I can say about that.”
Saulsbury, much like Keating in 2018, is running on a promise to fix the office. At the Washington Park town hall, she told the crowd she plans to listen to everyone coming through the office, and said the county needs to stop spending money on hearing hundreds of appeals. During her term at the helm of the office, she said, there were zero appeals.
The challenger — Tim Haid
Haid’s first job was in the county treasurer’s office, where he worked for five years. He heard people unhappy with their tax bills, but also got to know the back end of things — where the money goes and what it’s used for.
His big idea? Change the way the assessor values homes by taking a 10-year average of a property’s value. It’s not being done anywhere else, at least that Haid’s heard of, but he says he’s thought about it incessantly and “can’t think of a reason it wouldn’t work.”
“I think we’re really in a good position right now to make something happen,” Haid said. “We just have to make sure that it’s going to be good for the state, otherwise it just won’t happen.”
Haid’s proposal, and other ideas floated by Keating and Saulsbury, would need action from the state government — most likely a constitutional amendment — to be implemented. One of the most popular proposals would base property taxes on acquisition value, or purchase price, rather than comparable recent sales.
In 2021, a proposal that would have limited property tax increases to 3% or less from the previous year failed in the Wyoming Legislature. Keating is in favor of a cap like that; some of his campaign signs sport a red sticker that says “3% cap.” But the assessor, no matter who it is, can’t make that happen by themselves.
The assessment process works like this.
Every year, properties are assessed based on recent sale prices of similar properties. Land and buildings are technically assessed separately, but the values are then combined. That number is multiplied by a “neighborhood adjustment” that accounts for sales to bring the bottom line — the actual taxes an owner owes — within 5% of average sale prices for similar properties.
You need at least five sale prices to make a legitimate assessment. To find those, the assessor uses “stratification,” a method of sorting Natrona County’s 43,000 parcels into smaller groups of similar properties.
Ideally, you’d end up with groups that are as homogenous as possible — large east Casper homes built in the last two years shouldn’t be mixing with split-levels built on the west side in the ‘70s. Coveted riverfront land in Bessemer Bend shouldn’t be setting values for sagebrush plots north of Bar Nunn.
But residents say that’s what has been happening.
Pam and Ken Kozola said that in 2020, their land was valued much higher than the lot right next door. When they asked Keating, he told them there had been a “line in the sand” drawn at a quarter acre — meaning anyone with less than that was paying a higher tax rate for less land. There hadn’t been enough sales in their neighborhood, just two in the last few years, so their property was compared to homes elsewhere. This year, their property value went up around $40,000.
John Burd, one of the founders of the Natrona County Tax Payers Association, previously told the Star-Tribune he got interested in the assessment process in 2019, after a friend found her property in the Midwest Heights area of Mills was being compared to wealthier neighborhoods south of Casper and near Garden Creek during Keating’s first year. Her valuation went from $8,000 to $42,000 in a single year, Burd said.
In 2021, homeowner Mike DeLuca said his home value rose by 12%, as his neighbor’s fell by 8% the same year. He didn’t get a clear explanation until he showed up for a formal appeal hearing. Keating didn’t speak, DeLuca said, but someone else from the office said that the neighbor had a larger lot, which is valued at a lower rate.
Keating says that discrepancy is to make sure larger lots don’t have outrageously high valuations. You can’t value the square footage of a Walmart at the same rate as an outhouse, he’s told multiple people.
“It makes no sense to me,” DeLuca said.
In Wyoming, it’s not only Natrona County that’s feeling the heat from rising property values.
According to data from the state’s Department of Revenue, which oversees county assessor’s offices, every county has seen average residential property values go up this year. The rates range from 4% in Niobrara County to a 36% increase in Teton County — though most people will tell you that Teton, the wealthiest county in the nation, is an extreme anomaly in more ways than one.
But Natrona County is an outlier in the number of people protesting their valuations. Assessors in other counties with similar or bigger value increases said they haven’t seen much of an uptick in appeals, formal or informal.
This year, 538 formal and informal appeals have been filed. Each parcel has to be appealed separately, meaning there are fewer than 538 people appealing. Not all of those protests will be heard by the Natrona County’s Board of Equalization (aka, the county commission putting on a different hat).
That’s a big number, bigger than any other county by a long shot. Last year, there were 737 filed. The year before, values for more than 3,115 parcels were appealed formally or informally. In 2019, more than 2,000 appeals were filed, but just 256 sought formal hearings with the board.
“When you’ve got 3,000 appeals, that’s unheard of,” said Park County Assessor Pat Meyer, who’s worked in his office for 37 years. “That’s never happened to any other county.”
Most other counties, even larger ones, see just a handful of formal appeals each year. Assessors in those counties, including Meyer, said they mostly handle value changes on an informal basis.
This year, Laramie and Albany county assessors said they each had just one formal protest filed. Fremont County is set to hear 11 appeals, most of them from government entities or the local Catholic college looking for exemptions. Carbon County has seven protests docketed this year, largely from industrial or commercial properties.
“Once we show the sales we used for analysis, most of them understand,” Laramie County Assessor Kenneth Guille said. “These houses are selling for a lot.”
Natrona County used to have single-digit formal appeals, commissioner Rob Hendry said. In a busy year, the board would hear six. Now, they set aside several weeks for the hearings, which last all day and require commissioners and staff from the county assessor and attorney’s office.
County commission chair Paul Bertoglio said some people come back for appeals every year, contesting their values on principle. But others, mostly older people on fixed income, only appeal when they feel their valuations are really unfair.
They’ll try to quantify the cost the county pays to hold those hearings this year, he said.
“It’s the ones that are financially strapped, that they can’t afford a $50 increase in their pr
operty taxes, that there needs to be some mechanism for,” Bertoglio said. “It’s heartbreaking. And it’s extremely frustrating to sit there and go, no, there’s nothing we can do.”
Appeals also start from the assumption that the assessor’s valuation is correct. That means the burden is on the taxpayer to prove it’s unfair. Most of the time, the taxpayer has no idea what to bring to a hearing — some bring professional appraisal numbers, which aren’t considered. Others point to features of their home or land that could change its value, like outdated bathrooms or sloped land. Those usually have more success.
“We need to make it insanely easy to protest their taxes,” said Haid, the challenger in this year’s primary. “They’re our frontline.”
But the ones that are successfully appealed at the county, under Keating, are then sent up to the state board. There, the main factor in deciding whether to mandate a change in value is whether or not the assessor violated any statutes in making the assessment.
“What can a taxpayer bring then, if it isn’t a certified appraisal on his property?” Hendry said. “You’re not going to win with that state Board of Equalization. It ain’t gonna happen.”
Hendry said the commissioners also aren’t allowed to use their own knowledge of the area to object to or contextualize assessments. He’s appealed assessments on some of his own property, he said, and recently got one value changed for some rangeland. But the problem, Hendry said, is that doesn’t happen for everyone.
“I can’t really for the life of me see where he’s coming from,” Hendry said.
Several residents said that when they tried to make their cases informally to Keating, they felt that their arguments fell on deaf ears. Whereas with previous assessors, you could show up and get a good explanation for your value, or even have it changed, they said they felt Keating was unresponsive during those meetings.
Pam Kozola said when she went to his office in 2020, she found him “unapproachable,” “angry” and “rude.”
“What we thought was going to be a sit-down, work type of meeting turned into a seven-minute, max, stand-up discussion, right there off to the side,” her husband, Ken Kozola, said. “We never did get into any detail.”
That same year, Mike Deluca said someone else at the office told him they’d send an appraiser to look at his home when he complained of a spike, but no one ever came.
Ken Carpenter said he went to the office to request sale records for some of his 60 properties during Keating’s first year in office. After being told no a few times, he was finally taken to a room and given four bankers boxes with papers inside — not organized by any discernible pattern. It took him about an hour to go through one inch of paper, he said, looking at other people’s confidential sale documents in the process. Since then, Carpenter said, those files have been organized.
“Most of the time, what we have found in the Board of Equalization hearings, is the taxpayer has never been able to get in to talk to the assessor,” Bertoglio said.
When they come before the board for a formal appeal then, Bertoglio said, they end up essentially having that informal conversation they could have had in the office.
The Natrona County assessor’s office has been under a state-mandated work order since 2019, which says a statistical analysis found “undervaluation of commercial properties and non-uniformity across all property types.”
The state board said the office — which now has 16 employees — wasn’t staffed adequately. Keating has asked county commissioners for more money to hire more staff, but has been refused. A smaller staff means the office can’t fulfill the state’s requirement of checking every property on a six-year rotation, which is meant to keep them apprised of any new improvements.
It also noted that high turnover rates, four different assessors in Natrona County between 2013 and 2019, mean that institutional knowledge and experience are lost with each new assessor. In Keating’s office, just four of his staff members stayed on from past administrations.
“The described deficiencies and noncompliance are not the result of deliberate malfeasance, disinterest, or bad faith in the execution of appraisal responsibilities or the statutory duties of the office,” the order says.
The work order is still active, though Keating received a letter from the state board congratulating him on his “herculean efforts” to bring the county into compliance.
And though those who hate Keating are loud, there are still some residents satisfied with his work.
Without Keating in office, Jim Hunter says, property values in Natrona County would be lagging way behind market.
Hunter was an appraiser for decades in central California and said that Keating shouldn’t be blamed for following his mandate from the state. As homes sell for more, he said, people nearby can expect to pay the price.
“Your neighbors are not your best friends,” Hunter said. “You can go over and have barbecues with them… but when it comes time to sell their home, they’re going to do what’s in their best interest.”
Hunter said that his experiences with Keating as assessor have been “outstanding.”
Other Wyoming assessors say that home prices all over the state have gone up at a faster rate in the last two years than they had been before — some of that due, they said, to people moving from out-of-state and making high offers on homes Wyomingites usually can’t compete with.
New homes being built also add to higher taxes for everyone — they tend to be bigger, cost more and are systemically valued more by the assessor’s formula.
The way to get to a lower tax bill, Keating argues, is not through his office. He says the county commission, and other local government agencies, need to look at lowering their mills. Those are the set tax rates that fund counties and cities, school districts and water and sewer services.
But Hendry and Bertoglio said those mills, which are at the maximum levels allowed by the state, have been in place for years and are unlikely to change. The county relies on that money for daily operations, and has been hit by inflated costs just like the rest of the population.
And if a city or county isn’t charging the maximum mills, they can be disqualified from receiving state grant money for certain projects.
Still, Keating has tried to make his case to the commission.
“They said no,” Keating said.
He wrote to Gov. Mark Gordon this year, asking for a way to remove the limits on state grants for entities not charging full mills.
“No response,” he said.
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