Tax method at center of race for assessor
Candidates debate how much control position actually has.
By Cara Rank, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 16, 2010
The Teton County assessor’s job hasn’t been contested in 28 years.
But as Assessor Cathy Toolson prepares to retire at the end of this year, three challengers have emerged for the office. With them, the issue of how the county values property – and how those assessments affect the taxes on homes, lots and business assets – has come to the forefront of the race.
“It’s actually very health for voters,” said Republican candidate Dawn Johnson. “They are getting an education on how their property is valued. They are finding out they have the ability to look at their assessments, see how they are valued. They are just learning a lot about the system in general.”
Johnson will face challenger Lisa daCosta in her party’s Republican primary Aug. 17. Dee Buckstaff will move on to the November general election, as she’s the only Democratic candidate. Both Johnson and Buckstaff work in the assessor’s office already.
The last contested assessor’s race was in 1982, when DeAnn Sutton was elected, Toolson said. Sutton served until 1997, when she was appointed treasurer. When Sutton left the office, Suzanne Olmstead was appointed, Toolson said. She served until 2005, when Toolson took over.
“Having a contested primary and a contested general is very healthy,” daCosta said. “It’s going to allow for a full airing of skills and qualifications as well as issues. I think for the first time in a long time voters are going to have a really clear view of the office and why they’re voting.”
With daCosta putting in her name, the race has begun to focus on whether residents are overpaying because their property is valued too high. The 45-year-old has more than 20 years’ experience in financial analysis and business consulting and holds a real estate license.
“People are acutely aware their house is assessed for more than they can sell it for,” she said.
DaCosta said her campaign is about bringing property assessments in line with “reality” to provide tax relief to county taxpayers.
Property assessments are determined through several ways. Field appraisers collect information on properties such as year of construction and replacement costs. They also collect information on improvements such as sheds or upgrades.
Fair market value also is determined by looking at similar properties in neighborhoods within the county and sales information for that area for the previous year.
The office then uses a computer system to calculate appraisals.
DaCosta said most people don’t realize the county assessor has “great discretion” in that process, from how neighborhoods are defined to how upgrades are valued.
The model can be adjusted by the assessor at will, and the assessor can do anything she wants, as long as she can defend it, daCosta said.
“The assessor is the one who makes the financial decisions about what everybody’s property is worth, whether it’s your house or your business,” she said. “It would seem to me in a climate where the economy is really, really hard, wouldn’t you really like to have somebody in that role who has a strong financial background and not someone who’s just reliant on how numbers come out of computers?”
Other candidates said the assessor doesn’t have as much discretion when it comes to valuing property as daCosta suggests.
How much discretion?
“There are a lot of state rules and regulations that we have to follow in order to set those values,” said Buckstaff, 46. “And if our county doesn’t fall within the parameters of what is allowed by the state of Wyoming, then the state board of equalization can actually come over and equalize the county. That means people from Cheyenne would be setting our values.”
Buckstaff has worked in the office for almost two years. She spends her days in the field, visiting properties to gather information for assessments. She’s been in the valley since 1993 and previously owned the Montessori Schools. She is currently working on her MBA from the University of Wyoming.
Johnson, 45, also said the office is subject to many state mandates. She’s worked there for six years.
“The assessor does have discretion over the actual information gathered for the home,” she said. “But everything is regulated and audited by the state. Everything is watched over very closely.”
Any changes to reduce the assessed values of property would have to come through the state Legislature, Johnson said.
“That’s not something the assessor has the ability to determine,” she said. “So as far as property value being too high, all the numbers are audited through the Department of Revenue and determined by the previous year’s market. They’ve been completely certified by the state.”
Residents who have a concern about taxes must take that topic up in another race, that of county commissioner, she said.
“The assessor is charged with determining the market value of properties throughout the county. However, the role of determining the tax rates on these properties is the responsibility of the county board of commissioners,” she said. “These fine points are often confusing for people not completely familiar with the role of the assessor and is one of the key reasons that I am interested running for this position.”