Wyomingites have until June 6 to apply for a partial property tax refund for 2021.
To qualify for the state’s refund program, funded this year for the first time since 2019, you must own a home and have lived in Wyoming for at least five years.
The program is meant to give lower-income taxpayers a break as property values rise across the state. This year, the Wyoming Legislature’s Revenue Committee set aside $3 million from Wyoming’s general fund for the refunds.
“People that are on fixed income, that own their real estate and have lived there a long time, they’re deserving of some kind of tax relief,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander and the committee’s chair. “They don’t exactly have a lot of options.”
Your household income must also be less than 75% of the median level in your county. That threshold is $73,658 in Teton County, $50,138 in Natrona County and $39,308 in Goshen County, the state’s lowest-earning county.
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Your other personal assets — for example, money in the bank plus investments and other real estate — cannot total more than $133,651 in value to qualify. Assets including your home (but not a second one), car and retirement plans don’t count in that total.
And, of course, to apply for a refund on your 2021 tax payment, you need to prove you paid it.
You can qualify for up to half of your 2021 tax bill to be refunded, but Case said it’s unlikely anyone will see that high of a return. The amount you receive will depend on the amount of people who apply and qualify, given the program’s $3 million cap for the entire state.
Most people applying for the refunds are on some kind of fixed income, county assessors say.
Older Wyomingites stand to benefit from the program, said Wyoming AARP spokesperson Tom Lacock. The organization held a virtual town hall on a recently passed county property tax refund program that “several thousand members” attended, Lacock said. Afterward, Lacock said the group fielded more responses from members “than any tele-town hall that I can remember.”
“When you’re in your 60s, 70s, 80s, you’re not going back to work … you kind of have what you have to spend. So a 15% to 20% increase in your property tax is a really big deal,” Lacock said.
Rising property values
Wyoming is home to the highest-income county in the country. In Teton County, assessor Melissa Shinkle said usually around 100 people qualify for the state refund program.
Most of those are “longtime locals,” who’ve lived and worked in the area for decades and are “struggling to pay these increased taxes,” she said.
Shinkle said she’s seen property values in Teton County steadily increase for each of the five years she’s been assessor, and rates have risen even more since the start of the pandemic.
The county is also the only one in the state to participate in a property tax deferral program, which allows qualified people to delay up to half their payment on land smaller than 40 acres. The program is restricted to people who’ve owned their land for more than 10 years, earn a limited income and who are over 62 years old or who have a disability recognized by the Social Security Administration.
Teton County is an extreme example, even outside of Wyoming. But it isn’t the only place in the state seeing property values skyrocket in recent years.
Shinkle said that maybe if more people across Wyoming feel the heat of higher property taxes, it could put more pressure on the Wyoming Legislature to decrease the mandatory mills they levy for schools and other public services.
“In order for things to change, we have to start accepting that the revenue has to come from somewhere else,” she said.
In Park County, the Powell Tribune reported valuations going up as much as 25% to 45%, a jump from the 3% to 9% averages in years past. Case said in Lander, the market for buying homes became so hot during the pandemic that people were buying houses with cash over asking price, sight unseen.
Since 2018, Natrona County property owners have complained of raising assessments on their land — some seeing increases as high as 100% to nearly 400%.
Some residents blame the increases in Natrona County on Assessor Matt Keating taking office. But Keating says he’s only been fixing years of too-low valuations from his predecessors. The office has been under a work order from the state Board of Equalization since 2019 to bring values in the county into compliance with state statute.
“It’s surprising the number of people that come into my office that are on fixed income,” he said, “so I’m really grateful this year we’ve got something to help out these folks that are just financially strapped.”
Keating said he printed the refund program’s information on the back of every notice of valuation his office sent out this year — more than 47,000 in total — to let people know it’s an option.
“When you don’t have that much that you can offer in the way of help,” Shinkle said, “it’s frustrating for taxpayers and it’s frustrating for assessors.”
This spring, the Wyoming Legislature also passed another property tax refund opportunity that could offer further relief in coming years.
The county-optional program requires county governments to opt into the program and set aside a certain amount of money to fund it. That money would fill in for any refunds the county grants, serving the same purpose on a local level as the $3 million allocated for the state program this year.
“The local government depends on those taxes,” Case said. “So they have to be paid somehow. You can’t just not collect the money.”
No counties have opted into the program this year, partly due to the tight turnaround between the program being passed and local government budget-making, which some counties have yet to start this year.
Shinkle said that when Teton commissioners were discussing the program, numbers as high as $3 million were thrown out as possible county contributions.
In Teton County, where 87% of the county’s tax revenue comes from residential properties, that would mean the county could make up that difference with other property tax income.
But in most other places in Wyoming, like Natrona County, that backfill would more likely come from precious fossil fuel tax revenue.
“Teton County’s got more options than other counties have for finding the makeup funds,” said Case. “They’re just richer in a lot of ways, just about any revenue-raising measure they have is more successful there.”
Paul Bertoglio, chairman of the Natrona County Commission, said the board decided to table the county-optional program for this year since commissioners weren’t sure whether the county is equipped to administer it. Staffing could be a problem, he said, and the county would have to somehow come up with the money to pay those refunds.
“I laid it all out to the commissioners, and they agreed that until we have a further understanding of the cost and who’s going to do it, all those questions, we would not be in a position to implement it,” Bertoglio said.
Keating, the Natrona County assessor, said that in future years if you live in a county participating in the optional program, you may be able to apply to it as well as the state’s.