By Marit Gookin, Staff Writer

They say the only constants in life are death and taxes, but the residents of Atlantic City might disagree: Property taxes have been going up, seemingly unpredictably, with little to show for it in Wyoming’s more remote communities. This past Wednesday, residents invited legislators to come to the Miner’s Delight Bed and Breakfast to discuss this issue. State Representatives Lloyd Larsen, Sarah Penn, and Pepper Ottman; along with State Senator Cale Case and Fremont County Assessor Tara Berg, all showed up to hear from residents and to help explain some of the complexities of Wyoming’s current tax system.

Wyoming’s property taxes are based on the full value of the property – for residential properties, that means fair market value, or how much it would be worth if it was sold on the current real estate market. Each year, the county assessor determines this number based on information such as the last five sales of the property in question. 

“This community saw the biggest increase over the past three years,” observed Fremont County Assessor Tara Berg. “Atlantic City and Sinks Canyon.”  

A major part of the issue has to do with the way housing costs have been increasing recently; throughout the meeting, it was repeatedly observed that many people from other states moved to Wyoming during the COVID-19 pandemic, driving up property values. 

“This year, my property taxes are double” the amount they were assessed at, $934, when he bought his one-bedroom cabin 10 years ago, “having gone up $227 – more than 14% – this year alone,” commented Bob Townsend. “Wyoming has … become a destination for retirees and families trying to escape whatever it is they’re running away from. They’ve brought pockets full of money and have been paying ridiculous prices for their new forever homes.”

Many of these people kept their existing job – and its income – and either work from home or don’t live in Wyoming full-time, instead buying property in order to have what Berg described as “part-time homes.” Factors such as Wyoming’s lower cost of living, small population and comparatively fiscally conservative government mean that both wages and taxes here tend to be lower than wages in places with higher costs of living. “They’re earning California income but now they’re not paying California property taxes, they’re not paying California income taxes,” Berg said. Several Atlantic City residents advocated for a system by which long-term residents would receive some kind of discount – similar to the Homestead Act bill that died in committee this past legislative session – or for properties to be taxed based on what the current resident paid for them, perhaps with some small annual increase to reflect inflation.

“Five months out of the year, we have no county services up here,” remarked Gene Gatz, pointing out that Atlantic City has no paved roads, doesn’t have access to ambulance services and sees no police presence. Out of 10 school-aged children living in Atlantic City, only two (both from the same household) are able to attend public school in Lander. There is no school bus that goes to Atlantic City, resident Bill Moore explained, and while parents there receive a fuel stipend to help them with transportation costs, that amount hasn’t been adjusted to reflect rising gas prices. 

“So now they’re being homeschooled,” Moore continued. “They should be able to attend public school, but they can’t, because they won’t send a school bus up this mountain. Our money leaves this mountain, and we get nothing in return.”

Representative Larsen agreed with Moore that this put kids in Atlantic City at a disadvantage, questioning why the school district isn’t sending a bus for them. Later in the meeting, former Lander School Board member Brett Berg suggested that parents in Atlantic City should receive some kind of voucher from the school district due to this situation; homeschooling kids can mean that one parent needs to work part-time or leave work entirely, leading to lost income for the household. It was also noted that Atlantic City’s fire hall isn’t even accessible to residents; many residents seemed to feel that they are clearly not benefitting from the taxes they’re paying in terms of either education or emergency services.

Wyoming’s property tax system is written into its constitution, and consists of just three classes of property: mineral and mine products (taxed at 100%), industrial property (taxed at 11.5%) and all other property, including residential property (taxed at 9.5%). There is a slight exception in the relevant article for agricultural property, which is taxed based on production rather than market value, but two significant factors stand out: The taxation of mineral and industrial properties are indexed to the taxation of other properties, meaning that decreasing the taxes paid by homeowners would mean decreasing property taxes across the board; and that changing this system will require a constitutional amendment. 

Senator Case explained that during this past legislative session, the state legislature passed a measure that would add a constitutional amendment question to the next statewide ballot that would separate residential property into its own category. This separation would mean that the legislature would be able to adjust property taxes for residents without affecting the taxation of mineral products or industrial properties. Representatives Penn and Ottman reminded attendees that this change would also mean that the legislature would be able to raise property taxes for residents independently of the taxes paid by industry – although others pointed out that any legislator that did so would be working against their own best interest, as they would be unlikely to win another election.

In order for the amendment to go into effect, it will need to have more than half of voters vote in favor of it at the polls. Uniquely for constitutional amendments, someone choosing to abstain is counted as a vote against the amendment, so Case urged people to bear this in mind as they cast their ballot. He also noted that many of the tax-related bills the legislature saw this past legislative session weren’t necessarily constitutional, and that the state previously trying to skirt around constitutionality in regards to taxes was part of what was causing the problem now.

“I’m going to address the elephant in the room: schools,” Berg told attendees. Due to a previous case where the schools sued the state for dubiously constitutional taxes, Case explained, each school district in the state receives a fixed 25 mills from the mill levy. 

“We’ve got to keep [the state’s] budget and who’s responsible for taxation separate,” Larsen added. “All of the mills that are in there, you guys voted for.” He pointed out that the revenue from most of these taxes are actually seen at the county level, and that when cities and counties receive pushback from the public and reduce their own taxes, they tend to come to the state and ask for funding out of the state’s general fund. 

“We don’t have a state income tax, we don’t have a corporate tax,” he elaborated. Much of the revenue the government has to work with, then, has to come from property taxes and sales taxes alone, and the state of Wyoming has relatively low sales taxes. 

Case further pointed out that revenue from the oil and gas industry has decreased drastically over the past few years, and seems likely to keep doing so. “It’s a lot of ‘whys,’ but it’s not a ‘why’ the legislature can fix,” he said of that decrease and other factors. “How are we going to keep funding this place?” he questioned. “Are [there] just going to be places with no schools and no roads?”

While it was clear that many people were dissatisfied with the way things currently stand, the meeting was polite and orderly throughout, and the legislators had a lot of praise for the civic engagement demonstrated by residents. “I think you are the most engaged community probably in the state,” Penn told the crowd. Moore suggested that Atlantic City put together some kind of board or committee to go represent the community at the meetings of various districts and boards in the area whose spending impacts their taxes, and the legislators broadly supported this as a good idea. However, the residents were largely opposed to the idea that much of that spending actually needed to come their way. 

“We don’t want it to change; don’t pave our roads,” Moore said. “We’re no-maintenance up here.” All Moore – and the other residents of Atlantic City – want is to understand what taxes they’re paying and why, and to feel as though the taxes they are paying are reasonable. They also encouraged other communities around the state to hold similar meetings, inviting legislators to come speak with the public so they can receive feedback and the public can learn about the issues from their end. 

“There’s room and there’s possibility for a path, but it’s written into the constitution, which is an agreement we’re all bound by,” Case told the crowd, urging them to continue taking an interest in these issues and to stay civically engaged as they head to the polls.

“If you don’t like the way I vote, then you should be voting against me,” added Penn, saying that citizen engagement is how change happens.