Property taxes set to jump again, assessor warns

Lawmakers will consider offering more relief in upcoming session

Posted 2/1/24

Unless state lawmakers take action, local homeowners could face another big increase on their property taxes this year, Park County Assessor Pat Meyer recently warned.

Between inflation and …

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Property taxes set to jump again, assessor warns

Lawmakers will consider offering more relief in upcoming session


Unless state lawmakers take action, local homeowners could face another big increase on their property taxes this year, Park County Assessor Pat Meyer recently warned.

Between inflation and increased demand from people moving into the area, the assessed values of Park County’s residential properties rose by an average of 10.3% in 2021, another 23.5% in 2022 and then 18.7% last year, according to data compiled by Meyer. And based on the sales data he’s seen, the assessor is predicting another 18% increase this year.

“I’ve noticed that the housing industry for selling is slowing down, because there's not much to sell anymore,” Meyer said. “But the prices have not gone down yet. A lot of people are still paying cash when they’re coming here.”

While Park County has seen particularly sharp increases in values compared to the rest of the Basin, Meyer believes a similar surge will come to Big Horn County — and potentially to Hot Springs and Washakie counties as well.

Speaking at a Jan. 10 meeting between county officials and lawmakers from across the Big Horn Basin, Meyer endorsed legislation that would stop homeowners’ property taxes from increasing by any more than 5% in a given year.

The assessor previously opposed such a cap, but reversed course after seeing the sustained surge in home values following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal that year [2020]. I went, ‘You know, it's an average that usually goes back down,’” Meyer said. “I was mistaken.”


Capping taxes

The Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee is sponsoring a bill that would limit tax increases on residential properties to 5% a year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. However, House Bill 18 wouldn’t take effect until at least next year, as it’s conditioned on voters approving a proposed constitutional amendment that would separate residential properties from commercial and agricultural properties.

To offer more immediate relief, a group of lawmakers are sponsoring a similar measure that would impose a 5% cap starting this year. House Bill 45 would be more limited than the revenue committee’s legislation, only providing relief on single family residences and only on the structure itself.

Meyer called it “a great short-term fix,” but said lawmakers should also apply the discount to multi-family residences — such as duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes. Many of those are being rented by local residents, Meyer said, “and our rent in Park County has just been skyrocketing.”

Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep), who’s among the bill’s roughly 30 co-sponsors, said the group initially wanted to apply the cap to all owner-occupied residences. However, they heard that would be too difficult for assessors to administer and settled on single family residences instead, he said.

“In order to have 2024 relief, we thought that maybe this was the best way to get it forward,” Cooper said.

Meyer said the approach still bothers him — “because we’re not being fair, equal and uniform to everybody, because some people have 10 [single family] rental houses” — but he supports the bill.

“I think it’s a good short-term solution, that you’re actually doing something” to provide immediate relief, Meyer said.

“And that’s exactly what it was designed to do,” Cooper replied.


Other options

Lawmakers delivered some relief last year by expanding a property tax refund program that allows homeowners with more modest household incomes (up to 125% of the state or county median) to get as much as 75% of their taxes back. Some 1,174 Park County residents took advantage of the enlarged program, receiving nearly $1.25 million worth of refunds in 2023.

But lawmakers have continued to hear calls for more broad-based relief.

The revenue committee also agreed to sponsor legislation (HB 4) that would further expand the refund program, offering more limited relief to those with household incomes that are between 125%-175% of the median. Another committee bill (HB 3) would halve the property taxes for the homes of Wyomingites who are 65 or older and have lived in the state for 30 or more years.

Meanwhile, a group of citizens has proposed a “People’s Initiative to Limit Property Tax in Wyoming through a Homeowner’s Exemption” that would go further and halve the taxes on all primary residences in the state.

It’s likely lawmakers will hear and consider a variety of tax relief proposals in the upcoming Budget Session, but “I hope we don’t have too many bills coming along,” Meyer said, “because when you get too many, … things get a little tougher.”


A body divided

Lawmakers entered the 2023 General Session aiming to provide relief, but among a slew of proposals, the refund program was the only concrete action that drew enough support from the more conservative and more moderate factions of the body to make it into law. Passing legislation in the Budget Session will be even tougher, as non-budget bills need a two-thirds majority vote just to be introduced.

Cooper called it “imperative that all of us pull together” to ensure the property tax measures are introduced and debated.

“We’ve got a lot of division, and people got their personal preferences, and I think we’ve got to put those behind us and really bring all of them out and then let the cream rise to the top,” he said, to agreement from Meyer.

It could be a contentious session. The chair of the rightward Wyoming Freedom Caucus, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), has already panned the proposed 5% tax cap that would take effect this year. In an op-ed, Bear criticized HB 45 for being limited to residential structures and for allowing greater-than-5% increases if the homeowner makes improvements to the structure. Bear argued the cap should be amended to include residential land and commercial properties.

He also took shots at those sponsoring the bill, saying the “tax-and-spend insiders” could have reformed Wyoming’s “immoral” property tax system years earlier.

HB 45’s lead sponsor, Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo), then fired back with his own Cowboy State Daily op-ed, arguing Bear’s “obstructionism” has delayed tax relief.


Local revenue

One part of the debate is the fact that property taxes are a key source of revenue for K-12 education (which receives the majority of those dollars) and local governments ranging from counties to fire districts. Those counties, municipalities and various special districts have the ability to provide some relief by lowering their tax rates, but they’ve generally said they need the money.

Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston noted that, before the recent surge in property values, the county went through multiple lean years in which it had to cut budgets and delay maintenance.

“When we do have this money, it’s kind of unfair to look at the counties and say, ‘Oh, you’re just spending it because you got it,’” Livingston said. “When we didn’t have it, we didn’t spend it in places [where] we needed it.”

Cooper agreed, saying that some smaller counties “are just barely getting where they can maybe see daylight.” For them, any big cuts “are really gonna hurt,” he said.

When people mention the additional tax dollars flowing to local governments, Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody) said she notes those entities are feeling the pressure of rising prices like everyone else.

“Inflation didn’t stop at my front door,” she said.

In the case of the refund program, it avoids cutting local government funding because the dollars are drawn from other state funds, but that’s led conservatives to criticize the program as simply shuffling money around.

While there’s been some concern that capping annual property tax increases could hurt local governments, Meyer noted they’ve lived off of 4%-7% increases for the past several decades.

In calling on lawmakers to avert another big increase this year, he offered that, “we’re already paying way too much money in taxes.”

The Legislature is set to convene for the Budget Session on Feb. 12.