The following opinion was written by Sweetwater County Assessor Dave Divis.
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Response to Mr. Weber and the People’s Initiative Press Release:
As a Wyoming Assessor, I see first-hand what the increase in property taxes does to the people of my community. I send out over 24,000 Notices of Value to the property owners of Sweetwater County, and I am the first person they call when they have a question or choose to complain. I have testified on a number of property tax bills on behalf of the Wyoming County Assessor’s Association (WCAA) and my constituents. For example, the WCAA supported the Property Tax Refund Program that has been funded and expanded. In Sweetwater County, 256 households that met the income/asset requirements of the program received refund checks for tax year 2022 that averaged $684.68. To imply that there has been no relief to taxpayers in Wyoming is just false and 256 people have checks in the bank to prove my point.
The Administrator of the Property Tax Division of the Department of Revenue provided numbers for the revenue loss in every county if this initiative is successful. In Sweetwater County that revenue loss has been estimated at $5.6 million. Of the $5.6 million, $3.4 million goes directly to education in Sweetwater County. SweetwaterNOW just published an article entitled “SCSD#1 Teachers Report Student Behavioral Issues.” The article states SCSD#1 (Rock Springs) joined the lawsuit filed (which SCSD#2 Green River was already a part of) against the State of Wyoming for “violating its constitutional duties by failing to adequately fund public schools”. According to the article, the district needs more counselors and resource officers to adequately teach the students they currently have. Cutting funding at the local level by reducing residential property taxes by 50% will only make these problems worse. These are your kids and grandkids in the school system, do you really want to make that job MORE difficult by reducing funding?
According to the estimates from the Department of Revenue, county government would lose about $950,000. Remember that is the funding for things like law enforcement, ambulance service, hospital maintenance, the road and bridge department, mental health, the events complex, libraries, the museum and more. It will also affect agencies like our Senior Citizen Centers, YWCA, the Youth Home, Food Bank and more. Sweetwater County does have substantial reserves, but those reserves are for the “busts” we will eventually go through. We have lived that scenario in Sweetwater County for decades…we love the boom…we expect the bust….and we need those reserves for the eventual bust.
I do have an issue with how this initiative is being presented. Almost all of the discussion asking you to support this initiative mentions what the state spends or has in reserves. Your local property taxes stay local. Not one dime of your property tax goes to the state. There were multiple bills presented on tax reform, but most of them were very bad tax policy. The bills could not be administered, were unconstitutional, or were just really, really bad. I did testify against some of those bills for those reasons. They would have caused more harm than good.
My biggest problem with this is the residency requirement in the initiative — one year. If you are a veteran, you have to be a resident for three years. If you want to be eligible for the refund program, five years. But this is ONE year. The people moving in are the ones over-paying for property causing the values to go up and they get an exemption? This is not good tax policy. There are additional bills that will be considered by the legislature that are much better than this initiative.
Mr. Bien is quoted in the press release discussing different projects across the state. For example, he speaks about the Business Council and Business Ready Communities as “welfare projects.” He talks about housing for homeless and illegals, a funeral district with substantial reserves, a ne hospital, and a football field and implies that these projects are wasteful. I would leave that decision to the people of those communities. Projects like those don’t get started without a lot of discussion and sometimes a vote of the people if they are specific purpose projects. The citizens of those communities had the opportunity to attend meetings and voice their opinions. If a majority of those citizens chose to support those projects, that would be none of my business.
I would also like to discuss the 3,000 tax liens referenced in the press release. Tax liens could include IRS liens for not paying federal income taxes or there could be properties that have gone to tax sale and/or tax deed because the property owner was unable or unwilling to pay. I believe Mr. Bien is speaking of the property that has gone to tax sale/tax deed. I can tell you from direct, firsthand experience, almost all the properties in Sweetwater County that get to that point are vacant parcels. There is no home on those properties that someone is getting taxed out of, and I would believe that statement to be true in most counties in Wyoming.
The last thing to mention is where Wyoming stands as far as taxes in relation to the rest of the country. The Tax Foundation has Wyoming at 47th in property tax burden, only Hawaii, Colorado and Alabama are lower in property tax burden. Wisevoter.com has Wyoming as the 11th lowest sales tax burden, and we have no income tax. The Tax Foundation has Wyoming with the second lowest overall tax burden, the only state lower is Alaska.
If you as a resident of Sweetwater County feel like this initiative is the right thing for you, please sign. I would caution you for the reasons mentioned and I just want you to be aware of the consequences. If you have any questions about any of the numbers, please come and see me. I would be happy to discuss the numbers and explain why I think there are much better options available to help Wyoming taxpayers.
David S. Divis
Sweetwater County Assessor