Dave Simpson: The Property Tax Problem Isn't Just In Jackson

Columnist Dave Simpson writes: "Turns out you don't have to be part of the wine, cheese and granola set up in Jackson to feel the pinch of higher property values. Folks in nuts and bolts communities like Cheyenne are feeling the pain, too."

Dave Simpson

April 10, 20234 min read

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Turns out you don't have to be part of the wine, cheese and granola set up in Jackson Hole to feel the pinch of higher property values this year.

The most dramatic examples of runaway home values are in Teton County - with average homes commonly selling for millions, and a lot with a double-wide trailer reportedly selling for $600,000. But the most recent assessment notices show that meat and potatoes communities like Cheyenne are feeling the pinch, too.

For example, the most recent assessment on our house east of Cheyenne came in 16.7 percent higher than last year. The year before that, it increased 10.13 percent. And the year before that it increased a mere 1.12 percent. (WooHoo!)

Our property taxes have gone up, and will go up in September, by those same percentages. (Trust me on this. I don't want to get all mathy here.)

Now, lest you think I am complaining about property taxes, let me explain that I NEVER complain about property taxes in Wyoming. In the words of the great Taylor Swift, “Never, ever, ever.”

 I know we're only supposed to talk about “Wyoming solutions to Wyoming problems” these days, but I can tell you that the property taxes over in Nebraska, and in Illinois, were far, far higher than here in Wyoming. 

So much higher, in fact, that only this year – on a house worth three times more than our house in North Platte – did we surpass the property taxes we paid over there 16 years ago. 

I am not kidding. And I am not complaining.

That said, I understand people who look at their rising assessments and wonder, “What the ding-dong heck is going on in Wyoming?” I followed the property tax debate at the Legislature this year. And I posed what I considered a good question to some elected officials:

Can't local elected officials simply reduce their mill levies to counteract rapidly rising assessments?

I emailed that question to two state senators, and neither got back to me. (Kind of sad.) I emailed it to a county commissioner, who replied that fire districts don't get much from their levies, and fire trucks are expensive.

But then I sent my question to my county assessor, a bright guy who took an hour out of his busy day to explain why elected officials can't just reduce their mill levies to counteract higher assessments.

Turns out there are many restrictions on those mill levies.  And there are lots of different entities making up your total mill levy.

And here's the real clincher. Because your house and corporations are lumped into the same bucket by the Wyoming Constitution, a slight reduction in your tax bill could amount to millions of dollars in reduction for, say, the Walmart down the street. So your little reduction could mean big trouble for your schools, counties, roads, fire districts – all of which are convinced they are vastly underfunded as is, and couldn't possibly get by on a penny less.

The answer is to change the Wyoming Constitution to put your home in a separate bucket, so helping you doesn't result in huge savings for big commercial entities down the street. And thanks to last-minute action by the Wyoming Legislature this year, we're going to get a chance to vote on that next year.

So I got the answer to my reduce the mill levy question (nope), and I've figured out what my property tax bill will be come September (9.5 percent of my total assessment, multiplied by our levy of .06718, and voila!). And I understand that putting owner occupied residential properties in a separate category, and supporting that constitutional amendment next year, is probably a good idea.

 I get all that.

But, still, I'll be paying 16.7 percent more in property taxes later this year (far less than in most states, granted), but I doubt it costs 16.7 percent more to educate a kid this year, to fight fires, to kill weeds, and do all the other things government does, than it cost last year.

Seems like a windfall to the taxing districts if you ask me. At our expense.

And if a constitutional amendment addresses that problem, I'm all for it.

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Dave Simpson

Political, Wyoming Life Columnist

Dave has written a weekly column about a wide variety of topics for 39 years, winning top columnist awards in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska.