Amid increasing land values, Teton County commissioners decided Monday against adjusting the county’s property tax rate.
During a discussion about how to allocate about $2 million in “carryover” funds from the previous year’s budget, Commissioner Mark Barron suggested lowering the mill levy by 0.5, on the heels of a 0.75 mill levy reduction last year.
“I think there are people in this community that are struggling to keep up with the very escalating property taxes in the last few years,” Barron said.
A mill is the amount in property taxes paid for every $1,000 of assessed value. Teton County is levying 8.404 mills, out of a total of about 58, which mostly go to the state for public education in Wyoming.
After a 17% increase in 2018 the assessed value of property in Teton County increased about 15.5% in 2019. As county commissioners officially set the tax rates and hear dozens of appeals in the coming month, Teton County landowners continue to face challenges paying their property tax bills.
Ultimately the county commission decided to keep the property tax rate the same as last year. Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Greg Epstein both noted that a 0.5 mill levy reduction amounts to only $50 on a $5,000 tax bill.
“I just want the board to weigh out the benefits of returning that $50 to the average person paying the $5,000 tax bill, to the challenge that would be faced by a board in the future with having to raise revenue,” Newcomb said. “The property tax is generally seen as the stable base layer of revenue for local government. Other taxes, like a sales tax, are more volatile.”
The coal industry’s collapse means the county should anticipate a reduction in revenue from the state in the future, Commissioner Luther Propst added.
“I see dark clouds ahead,” he said. “I also worry about the fact that we’re in a 10-year economic expansion that’s not going to last forever.”
Rather than reducing property taxes, commissioners instead opted to use the $2 million toward housing and reserves. They decided to allocate $1 million more for housing for county employees, bringing the total for that purpose to $2 million for the coming fiscal year.
“I feel we would be whistling past our grave if we don’t do something with this fortunate revenue we have this year to ensure our employees can find a place to live in this community,” Newcomb said.
He acknowledged housing is central in the county’s struggle to fill jobs like planning and building director.
The remaining $1 million in carryover funds will go toward reserves: $500,000 for capital reserves and $500,000 for operating reserves.
Tax appeals pile up
The county commissioners are scheduled to hear 76 property tax appeals next month, Teton County Assessor Melissa Shinkle said. That number was winnowed from 98 appeals that were originally filed.
“I think a lot of people realize that we’re sort of at the mercy of a mathematical calculation that’s handed down from the state, and we don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” Shinkle said.
Last year Teton County originally saw about 125 appeals filed, with 75 appeals heard by the Teton County Board of Equalization. Of those more than half were dismissed or withdrawn.
Every year the assessor’s office is responsible for placing a fair-market value on every individual property — residential and commercial — in the valley. The values are based on actual sale prices in particular neighborhoods. Those values are used to calculate how much property tax is owed to the county and state. When landowners dispute their property valuation they can file an appeal.
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners convenes as the Teton County Board of Equalization to hear the appeals. This year they’ve booked the week of Aug. 12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Commissioners hear evidence from the assessor and the landowner to determine whether the assessor followed state statutes and fairly valued the property.
In 2018 Teton County property assessments shot up about 17% overall, compared with 7.3% and 8.9% in the previous two years. The dramatic increase in 2018 was largely due to changes mandated by the Wyoming State Board of Equalization, which in 2016 and 2017 ordered the Teton County assessor to fix historic valuation errors to comply with state rules. The state board said the county “consistently failed” to value commercial properties uniformly and at full market value as required by law, and also required adjustments to residential home valuations.
Market is driving increases
This year those errors have been resolved, Shinkle said, and 2019’s 15.5% increase is mostly due to pricey real estate sales.
“The only thing we’re dealing with is the market,” she said. “Valuation changes in 2019 are most generally the result of current market conditions.”
Shinkle said next year, now that the property valuations are “caught up” and accurate, she hopes to restructure commercial valuations for more accurate comparisons.
“Next year I’m hopeful I can break out hotels, and I can break out retail, and I can break out office space, and value them just within those classes,” she said.
Rising property values in Teton County continue to hit longtime residents, particularly those with fixed incomes.
“It has a huge impact on elderly people who have been here a long time,” said Gina St. Clair, whose parents bought their Wilson home in 1950. They can’t go get another job, and they can’t relocate to another community. We could sell our property and relocate my parents somewhere cheaper, but you don’t do that to people who are 87 years old.”
St. Clair said the $6,000 property tax increase on her parents’ home over two years has been difficult.
“It’s a big hit for octogenarians on a fixed income,” St. Clair said. “It’s made it really hard for these old local people to stay here.”
Liz Hirschland has lived in her Fall Creek Road house since 1965.
“I might have two more years where I can basically afford to live here between the prices in the grocery store and the taxes,” Hirschland said.
She worries escalating property taxes will force out locals.
“Long term, you’re going to get rid of every single working stiff in this valley who makes an income between $30,000 and $50,000,” Hirschland said.
“They’re going to think, ‘I can go somewhere else,’” she said. “There needs to be some way that we can approach the county commissioners or whoever the important ‘wahoos’ are in the town of Jackson to say, ‘Let’s put a stopgap on this tax stuff. Let’s figure out a way that we don’t tax our working class and our locals right out of this valley.’ We are getting taxed right out of our home.”
With the county keeping its fraction of the property tax rate as-is, change will have to come from Cheyenne. St. Clair said she would like to see elderly citizens get a tax break on the first $1 million in property value.
Shinkle agrees and would like to see the state provide further tax help for Teton County landowners.
“Always this time of year I have a renewed sense of urgency to try to get to somebody at the legislature who can get some new bills introduced to provide relief,” Shinkle said.