Wyoming residents have made their feelings clear — they’re fed up with soaring property taxes.
That also was the message conveyed by people who overflowed a Sheridan College meeting room Monday to tell the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee they’ve run out of patience. They want the Legislature to act.
State officials also testified, saying that historically, annual property taxes have typically increased by 4% to 7% on average. But that’s not consistent with some of the property tax increases seen over the past two years around the Cowboy State, with some counties seeing their taxes jump as much as 50%.
“I have to say to you guys, what is enough?” former Johnson County Assessor Cindy Barlow questioned the committee.
There were so many people at the meeting Monday that some had to watch from outside the room.
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, expressed frustration about how much time public testimony took. As a result, there were no draft bills discussed to resolve the many issues people brought up.
“I think we could have had a pretty frank discussion and still had time to spend on how to work with some of these problems that were brought up,” he said. “Very few brought anything new to the table. They had a lot of emotion and passion and a lot of anger but that really cut into the committee's time.”
Zwonitzer said the Revenue Committee will likely add an extra meeting in the fall to address property tax relief.
Many of those speaking were older retirees who offered impassioned pleas along traditional conservative beliefs that big government is unfairly taking people’s money. The tax hikes tend to hit seniors especially hard, many who live on fixed incomes.
“They’re doing a real good job sucking up money from big-time taxpayer Greg Loftus,” said Buffalo resident Greg Loftus, speaking in the third person.
Loftus said although his property taxes have gone up 500% over the past 20 years, he doesn’t believe he’s received a 500% increase in services.
Many people also said lawmakers are playing politics and serving their own interests rather than addressing property tax increases and cutting state spending.
Other criticized the assessment models many county assessors use as being too open to interpretation. One of the considerations Wyoming assessors make is a neighborhood adjustment rate, regardless of the size of the individual property they are inspecting.
“If the assessor's office can’t be accountable to the people who elected them to be there, without being thrown out, and that they can get the data easily without being bullied, then we have accomplished something,” Barlow said.
Park County Assessor Pat Meyer told Cowboy State Daily that appraisers are bound by strict guidelines and rules.
“As the values rise we have to rise with them,” he said. “But we still have to be as conservative as we can.”
Local residential property tax revenue increased statewide by 21% from 2021 to 2022 and is forecasted to increase by another 18% in 2023, according to data provided by the Wyoming Department of Revenue. Total assessed values increased by 28.4% from 2019-2022.
Zwonitzer said he understands why people are frustrated.
“I don’t think any of us blame them,” he said.
What About Homeowners?
The morning portion of Monday’s meeting was dedicated to allowing state and county officials to talk about Wyoming’s tax laws and structure. Few residents seemed to put credence in this testimony, with some even referring to it as boring.
State Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan, said what was lacking in Monday’s testimony was the perspective of homeowners.
“We’re not really that concerned about the ins and outs and all those details about how those taxes are figured,” Pendergraft said. “What we’re concerned about is we have seen an exponential tax increase and have not realized an exceptional value in the services we receive, in fact we might even make an argument they have been depreciated.”
Following this comment, about three hours of public testimony was provided.
Buffalo resident Jan Loftus said she sees the Legislature’s new Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force as an example of unnecessarily growing government. She warned against the state’s schools turning into “little mental health institutions,” something she finds dangerous for children’s health.
Pendergraft believes inflation is solely a result of overspending by the federal government, a bloated and excessive entity to which he believes taxpayers are held hostage to.
“Where has government sacrificed, where have we cut back?” he questioned.
Wyoming spent an amount roughly equal to what it took from property tax revenue this year toward its supplemental budget. Pendergraft described this as “giving virtually nothing back to the taxpayers.”
Where The Money Goes
Government spending in Wyoming is mostly on state-run services and various programs such as schools, health care and the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
In 2022, most of Wyoming’s $1.7 billion in property taxes went toward schools and education, while local governments received a roughly 27% chunk of the pie.
Wapiti resident Glenn Schultz presented information from SchoolDigger.com showing that although Wyoming is spending more money on schools than it did 10 years ago, some of its test scores have declined.
Sen. Bob Ide, R-Casper, wondered aloud why Wyoming, which spends substantially more per pupil on education funding than Utah and Idaho, doesn’t have much higher test scores than these states.
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, co-chairman of the Revenue committee, pushed back on this information, mentioning how Wyoming’s reading scores are some of the best in the nation, along with the state’s relatively low tax rates.
“You said a narrative, but I’ll say a narrative,” Harshman told Schultz. “Are we going to try and deliver some relief to Wyoming people? Absolutely. We got some done last year, we’re going to try and get some done this year. I want to gently push back on that narrative we’re all going to heck here in Wyoming because we’re not.”
Despite the lack of significant movement on property taxes during the 2023 Wyoming Legislature, the conversations taking place on the issue are likely the most intensive to occur in the state in more than 30 years.
In 1988, Wyoming residents passed a constitutional amendment reducing property taxation from real value to assessed value, a move which also created three property tax classes and the current tax structure.
Rep. Bill Allemand, R-Casper, presented a petition with 1,825 signatures from Natrona County protesting their property taxes and requesting an acquisition value-based method to determining their taxes. This action, which would determine a homeowners’ taxes based on the purchase price of their home, would require legislative approval and a constitutional amendment supported by the voters. Casper resident Rozmaring Czada ran the petition.
“We all want this issue taken seriously as it weights very heavily on our minds and hearts, the people you’ve been elected to represent ” Czada said.
Czada said the property tax increases make some feel that there is no incentive to make improvements to their property as they believe they will be hammered by an increase in taxes for doing so after.
Many who testified said they believe acquisition-based taxation to be the only effective long-term solution for the state.
During the 2023 Legislature, a bill was passed funding a study on acquisition value property taxation. California is the only state in the nation that uses an acquisition-based model for property taxes.
Meyer said he doesn’t believe this model can be easily translated to Wyoming because of the vastly different size of the two state’s populations. He also mentioned that California still has a 2% yearly increase on property tax rates.
Czada and Allemand said some lawmakers are acting with power and greed in their attitudes toward property tax relief. Czada said the state has been too dependent on energy production for revenue and now homeowners are having to pay the price for this dependence.
Sheridan resident Neil Ingram took an even more dire tone to the situation, questioning the committee whether it would take “a civil uprising” to inspire them to draft legislation addressing the property taxes. Greg Loftus said residents may be looking for a “Boston bay” to throw something in, a reference to events that led to the American Revolution. He said most politicians have never met a tax they didn’t support, a comment eliciting an appreciative applause from the audience.
“We want correction, and we want it now,” Ingram demanded.
Ingram doesn’t believe people should have to pay taxes once they reach retirement age and said many residents are being taxed out of their homes.
“That’s not right, that’s not American,” Ingram said, his voice elevating to a yell, which was greeted by an enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Cody resident Sheila Leach spoke on behalf of the idea of capping property tax increases, a measure Meyer said he supports in the range of 5%-10%. Leach said not only homeowners, but also renters, are affected by the price jumps.
Some have also advocated for lowering Wyoming’s residential assessment rate from 9.5% to 8.5%, but Meyer warned this would create a significant impact on the state’s overall revenue.
One of the few measures on property tax reform that did pass during the 2023 Legislature was an expansion of the eligibility group for the state’s property tax rebate program.
Czada said the state’s property tax rebate program “adds insult to injury” by executing the state’s independent spirit. Loftus said this program, which chooses qualifying recipients based on their income and their assessment of wealth, is an example of the government picking winners and losers.
Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette used the example of marbles being moved from one jar to another to argue that past measures to address property taxes have amounted to no change for the homeowners. McKeown said the only way to resolve this issue is to cut spending.
“We have to do something, people screamed for it last year and we were woefully short,” he said.
Pat Loftus estimated that about 30% of the meeting’s attendees left after lunch without getting the opportunity to talk. Pendergraft also criticized where the meeting was held. This room has been used to host other legislative committee meetings this year with no prior issues related to room capacity.
Harshman defended the committee’s handling of this matter, saying “we’re doing the best we can,” which drew some catcalls from the audience.
Zwonitzer said Pendergraft and other legislators were responsible for inviting around 80 people to attend the meeting but did not inform any other members of the committee or Legislative Service Office staff they had done so. Pendergraft did not immediately return Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.