A1 A1
Cayla Nimmo, Star-Tribune 

Rock River's Delaney Qualls drives around Snake River's Samantha Moon during their Class 1A quarterfinal game at the Wyoming State High School Basketball Championships on March 5 at the Casper Events Center.


Govt-and-politics
top story
As debate over vote by mail swells nationwide, Wyoming may have found its compromise

It’s still unclear what the country will look like when voters go to the polls this November. But both parties are already fighting to shape how the upcoming primary and general elections will be held.

Voting by mail, which has quickly been embraced by America’s voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has driven a wedge between Republicans and Democrats across the nation. Most polls show a clear majority of Americans support expanding it ahead of the 2020 general elections and, already this year, plans to expand mail-in balloting have been rolled out in a number of states, with more expected to follow.

For Democrats, vote by mail has been seen as a means to allow the homebound masses an opportunity to meaningfully engage in their democracy without risking their own well-being.

For Republicans, the expansion of vote by mail is a harbinger to voter fraud on a massive scale, described with little evidence to support it as a Democratic-led effort to harvest ballots and tip the scales in the favor of liberal candidates. Already, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and the GOP have publicly opposed any expansion of vote by mail, calling it an attempt to “eliminate safeguards in our elections.”

Though a mix of expanding mail-in balloting and access to existing absentee balloting programs has been embraced by both Democrats and Republican administrations across the country, the talking points have already provoked figures like President Donald Trump, who railed on Twitter against efforts in Democratic-controlled Michigan (which sent out applications to voters to receive mail-in ballots) and Republican-controlled Nevada (which is moving to a vote-by-mail primary this year) to broaden ballot access.

The divide has even reared its head in Wyoming, where Democrats and Republicans are laying plans to both expand and defeat any expansion of mail-in balloting in the Equality State.

In a presentation to members of the Wyoming Republican Party earlier this month, Marti Halverson — a former state legislator and the party’s outgoing national committeewoman — detailed a ground-level effort in Wyoming that, in consultation with the RNC, would roll out programming intended to stall the expansion of mail-in balloting, something she described as a means to “protect the integrity of the vote.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic Party — which earlier this year successfully conducted its presidential caucus completely by mail — passed an independent audit of its elections with no issues and since has worked to bring additional visibility to mail-in balloting across Wyoming.

The divide between the two parties is a surprising one, said the Equality State Policy Center’s Chris Merrill, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic that impacts voters of all stripes.

“As a nonpartisan individual, I find it astonishing that this issue is somehow making its way into partisan politics,” he said. “Helping people who want to vote to vote, especially in the midst of a pandemic — a time when you’re trying to protect public health and you’re trying to protect your county election officials, your county employees — you want to give them an option to vote without putting themselves and others at risk.”

While in-person options continue to be considered as bipartisan best practices, the expansion of absentee balloting or some other form of mail-in option could be a necessity, particularly at a time when the logistical challenges of hosting an in-person election during a pandemic could potentially restrict poll access. At the Wyoming Republican Convention earlier this spring, GOP officials described a number of challenges in recruiting workers who would be willing to staff polling places on Election Day, citing fear among the job’s usual hiring pool of older, retired workers of contracting the coronavirus.

Leaders in Wyoming have already been working diligently to provide an alternative option to voters this fall. However, Wyoming’s Republican Secretary of State, Ed Buchanan, is careful to distinguish between voting by mail and what Wyoming is currently doing: simply allowing more people to apply for an absentee ballot through the mail.

“We’re just hoping to give folks an option,” Buchanan said. “They’ve always had the option, but we’re just kind of trying to go the extra mile for somebody who may not know that, just to say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a way that you can request an absentee ballot and you can still vote if you’re afraid to go in person to the ballot box.’”

It’s an approach that could potentially strike a balance between the desires of liberals and conservatives heading into Election Day, says John Pudner, president of the conservative campaign finance reform organization Take Back Our Republic and a former adviser on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

Building on Wyoming’s already stringent voter verification laws and an absentee balloting process in counties across the state (Fremont County’s — a copy of which was emailed to the Star-Tribune — is quite extensive), Pudner said a temporary absentee solution could help to maintain the access to the ballots that Democrats desire while ensuring the election security often yearned for by Republicans.

“Mailing out applications versus mailing out ballots is the key,” he said. “As long as you have that extra step, where someone says, ‘I want to have a ballot’ in order to vote, then we’re for it.”


Casper
featured
Natrona County residents again see spikes in property assessments; local leaders encourage them to appeal

Two young kids spill out of David Carpenter’s front door, barefoot and curious. Killian, 5, and Isla, 3, race each other to the backyard.

Brianna McFarland, David’s wife, follows them out, and David turns for the backyard, too. Brianna is an artist, David says (not without some pride) as the wind pushes little plastic paint cups off the balcony above.

They bought this house in 2017, right after Isla was born. It worked out “kind of perfect,” Carpenter said. His grandparents had lived on this block. They moved from a 900-square-foot place on the east side into hopefully their forever home.

It’s a ranch house and 1.03 acres in a residential neighborhood off CY Avenue. Last year it was worth a little under $300,000. This year, it’s worth more than $700,000.

If that’s how it had been valued when he was looking for a place to move his growing family, “It would have been totally out of my range,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter received his annual property assessment this month, and to his dismay saw that the land his house sits on went up in value from $25,000 to almost $500,000. Many other residents have seen significant spikes in their valuations and local leaders say they’ve been getting calls and emails from angry property owners wanting to know what’s going on.

In Carpenter’s case, he doesn’t see how his new valuation can be right. Aside from a well-manicured backyard and a few new trees, they haven’t done much to the land.

About half of it can’t be built upon, anyway. Once you cross the creek, which bisects the yard, it’s just a hilly, bumpy slope up to the road with easements on either side. There’s a small wooden plank bridge that crosses the creek, and they’ve recently put in a small fire pit.

“That was our quarantine project,” Carpenter said.

But there haven’t been any substantive changes to the land in the last year.

Carpenter spoke with the county assessor, who told him to submit a formal appeal about the issue. If he can’t resolve things, he’ll be looking at adding $250 a month in property tax payments to his monthly budget.

***

The county assessor’s job is to determine the fair market value for a piece of property, or how much a reasonable person would be willing to pay for it. For residential properties, the valuation includes separate totals for the house and the land. The cost of a person’s property taxes depends on the combined values.

In Natrona County, these figures are determined by Matt Keating. Keating ran for the office in 2018, vowing to correct alleged mistakes the then-current assessor’s office was making.

“The Assessor is a very important position and when the office gets an assessment wrong, real harm comes to those affected,” Keating wrote in a column published by the Star-Tribune in August 2018, citing examples from residents of extreme inaccuracies in their charges.

Last property assessment season — Keating’s first in office — saw a record high number of people appeal their assessments to the County Commissioners, who sit once a year as the county board of equalization, or the body authorized to hear property tax appeals.

In 2019, that body heard 68 total appeals but resolved only five; 256 taxpayers had formally sought to appeal their matter to the board, but the majority did not show up in the end.

That was more than County Commission Chair Rob Hendry said he can remember in a single year. And it’s looking like there may be a large number again this year.

“I don’t know yet whether it’s more than last year, but there are a lot of mad taxpayers out there,” Hendry said in a recent interview.

Hendry encouraged property owners to file formal appeals with the assessor before the May 29 deadline. Residents can still work things out with the assessor after they’ve formally complained, but if they don’t file an official appeal, they won’t have any recourse.

In interviews with the Star-Tribune last May, Keating acknowledged the 2019 valuations weren’t perfect. He said part of the blame falls on the office being disorganized in years past.

“We walked into a big damn mess,” he said at the time. “(The valuations) are not where they need to be.”

Last May, Keating explained Natrona County uses sales data from the previous year to determine a baseline value for properties in particular categories and particular areas. Then, “adjustments” are applied to neighborhoods and individual properties to lower the values from the baseline value determined by the sales data.

In the past, properties’ values have been lowered “unjustifiably,” Keating had said. He said adjustments — factors considered when determining a property’s marketability — have been too liberally applied. Those adjustments could be for anything from the shape of the lot to how close a property is to a school to fire damage to remoteness.

Keating did not return multiple requests for comment for this article, so it’s unclear if the office has taken a different approach in assessing properties this year.

But taxpayers are seeing a difference.

Linda Crabb has been a real estate agent in Casper for 42 years.

“And I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.

Her own land valuation went up by 300 percent this year. She said she’s seen the best booms and the biggest busts and there has never been this large of a discrepancy in her assessments from year to year.

Crabb appealed the assessment with Keating, thinking there’s no way her land, similar and just down the street from Carpenter’s, could have gone from being worth $17,000 to nearly $350,000 in one year.

She said Keating and several members of his team visited her property after she filed the appeal. They told her they would look at the adjustments she wanted added — the easements, the backyard that can’t be built upon.

“But they want everything current,” she said they told her, saying that her land value hadn’t been updated since 2010.

Tom Brock lives on Lynwood Street, too. His land value, according to the assessor’s office, went from a little over $20,000 to nearly $400,000.

He concedes $20,000 is too cheap for his 0.83 acres. But to get a valuation with that kind of increase signals “gross inconsistencies,” Brock said.

“I think for years the property taxes and assessed values here have been unusually low. Unfortunately they decided to make up for 15 years of low rates all in one year.”

And now, the trio of neighbors said, the burden has fallen to residents to catch those inconsistencies.

“Not everyone knows how to appeal or that they have to,” Crabb said. “What I feel is he’s forcing us to do his work for him.”

Property owners have until May 29 to appeal their 2020 assessments. While Keating did not answer requests for comment, Hendry said the courthouse is working to be able to let people in to speak with Keating personally sometime next week.

Residents can also file their appeals online, through the mail or at a drop box in the courthouse.


Govt-and-politics
top story
After a jump in traffic deaths, lawmakers look to make Wyoming highways safer

2019 was one of the deadliest years ever on Wyoming’s highways.

One hundred forty seven people died in fatal crashes, the second-highest number since 2014 and 36 more than the year before.Wyoming might be sparsely populated, but it's also home to a pair of federal interstates including Interstate 80, the country's main east-west thoroughfare. That highway can be treacherous in the winter: A massive pileup on Interstate 80 near Wamsutter in March killed three people and injured about30 more.

The pace of fatal crashes has slowed this year, but as of Thursday, 29 people have died on Wyoming roads so far in 2020.

Lawmakers are working on a number of bills aimed at reducing the amount of deadly wrecks in Wyoming. On Thursday, members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs decided to pursue several pieces of legislation designed to stem the high numbers of traffic deaths in Wyoming. The bills, which will be worked throughout the 2020 interim session, would, among other things, create enhanced penalties for not wearing a seat belt and new requirements for rear-facing seat belts for children under the age of 2.

The seat belt requirement might be a key fix. According to Wyoming Highway Patrol administrator Kebin Haller, the introduction of a primary safety belt law could help to increase seat belt compliance by as much as 12 percent. If that holds true in Wyoming, such a law could potentially save numerous lives. According to data from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, 39 percent of all highway fatalities recorded last year were the result of people not wearing seat belts, with Wyoming residents accounting for nearly two-thirds of that total.

The legislation comes at a time when fewer Wyomingites are buckling up. According to state data, seat belt use in Wyoming declined 8 percent between 2018 and 2019, coinciding with a sharp increase in year-over-year fatalities.

“There is certainly a downward trend in our state,” Haller told members.

While lawmakers approved those bills -- as well as legislation to allow the use of cameras and technology to patrol difficult-to-enforce corridors like Teton Pass -- committee members declined to take on a number of recommendations proposed by traffic safety advocates.

These included increased fines for those going at least 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, a sharp increase in distracted driving penalties and a licensing requirement for drivers of commercial vehicles to have some sort of training in winter driving. Lawmakers declined to pursue the latter recommendation due to the difficulty in enforcing such a law.

The committee is scheduled to discuss the bills again at its meeting in September.