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Education or self-promotion? Keating, county commission spar over scrubbed website content

Assessor Matt Keating meets with the Natrona County Commission 4/5/22 (Gregory Hirst, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — Some content related to the Natrona County Assessor’s office that was briefly on the county’s website and YouTube page has been taken down at the direction of the commission, prompting an internal push for a website content policy as well as a contentious exchange between the assessor and the commission.

Natrona County Assessor Matt Keating met with the commission at a work session Tuesday to discuss why the materials have been taken down and to question the commission’s authority to do so.

“You’ve limited my ability to communicate with the taxpayer,” Keating told the commission, and described the move as an “overreach.” He told Oil City previously that while the commission may have had the authority to take down the content, it doesn’t have the right.

One piece of removed content was a video produced by a studio in Kansas that explains, generally, the role most assessors play in determining fair market values based on the Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal System. It explains, as Keating has done many times over the past three years, that assessors do not set tax rates. The same video, aside from county-specific text, can be found on Teton and Fremont County websites.

“One of the largest challenges we face in the assessor’s office is explaining the Mass Appraisal System,” Keating told Oil City, adding that many of his discussions with unhappy taxpayers begin with answering their accusations that he “raised their taxes,” and that the video was an attempt to help educate the public.

BOCC Chairman Paul Bertoglio told Oil City that while the video is perhaps “two-thirds” accurate, it contains one glaring misrepresentation.

The video states that local governments (the commission) “set the tax rate in order to produce the dollars needed for their budgets. Even if everyone’s value were to be cut in half by the assessors, the tax rate would be raised in order to generate the same amount of tax revenue.”

“That’s absolutely not the way it goes,” Bertoglio said. “We figure out how much money we have to spend, then figure out the budget. It’s not the other way around.”

Furthermore, Natrona County has been “maxed out” on the number of mills ($1 paid in property tax for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value) it can levy for well over a decade. Of the 72.89 mills levied in Casper, 12 go the county’s operating costs — most go to the school district.

“What county looks at their budget and then decides the mills?” Bertoglio asked Keating on Tuesday. “That’s not accurate. The implication in that is that the county commission sets your property tax. … The implication is that you’re the good guy and we’re the bad guy.”

The exchange comes after three years of Keating’s tenure in the assessor’s office. As he took over, the office was placed under a work order by the Wyoming State Board of Equalization, which said that previous assessments were vastly out of statistical, state-mandated compliance, with “under-valuation and non-uniformity in nearly all categories” over previous administrations.

Keating’s office began a major overhaul of Land Economic Areas, among other measures, to meet compliance. The result eventually earned him a glowing letter of approval from the State Board of Equalization, but it also resulted in steep increases in property tax bills for many county residents, as well as over 2,000 formal appeals for the county commission to hear, many on a case-by-case basis.

The October 2021 letter, signed by the chairman of the State Board of Equalization, commends Keating’s “herculean” efforts in bringing the county’s assessments back into compliance. 

This letter was one of the other pieces of content on the assessor’s Natrona County website that was taken down.

“I don’t disagree that the assessor’s office has come a long, long way,” Bertoglio said Tuesday. “But there’s too much opinion in there. … There’s a difference between education and self-promotion. Once you start down that path, where does it stop?”

Bertoglio added that, in addition to many taxpayers, “I think there’s a number of us commissioners that would have to disagree on based on the BOE hearings.”

Bertoglio previously told Oil City that while Keating appears to have followed the rules and produced the overall metrics necessary to meet compliance, there were plenty of individual cases that contained “glaring anomalies,” forcing the commission to uphold assessments that “don’t pass the smell test.”

When asked about the State Board’s glowing letter last fall, Bertoglio said, “Come sit in our shoes.”

The third piece of content taken down from the site was a letter Keating wrote to taxpayers, which includes a snippet of testimony by the State Board of Equalization’s vice president further affirming how erroneous assessments were under the previous administration. 

“I think the taxpayers have a right to see this stuff, but it’s going to be very difficult for me to get it to them now,” Keating told Oil City.

Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson told Oil City that he and the county’s IT chief were currently in the very early stages of drafting a policy regarding the kind of content that can be posted to a county website. “It’s such a unique situation, there really isn’t anything quite like it that I can find in Wyoming.”

Education or self-promotion? Keating, county commission spar over scrubbed website content