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

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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.

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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.

Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites

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Local Government Reporter

Morgan Hughes primarily covers local government. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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