Commissioners say they’ve heard complaints that certain districts — which they haven’t named — are collecting the maximum allowable amount of property taxes only to needlessly build up reserve accounts.
“A lot of the public’s been saying, ‘God, they (the districts) are just hoarding a bunch of money. We’re being taxed, we’re being overtaxed, they don’t need that money,’” Commission Chairman Tim French said in a June 12 interview.
State law sets the maximum amount of property taxes that a special district can collect, a percentage that’s based on the assessed valuation and which varies for each entity. What commissioners want to know is if they have the legal power to make districts take less than the maximum.
“What it comes down to is typically, the more money you have, the more money you’re going to spend,” said Commissioner Dave Burke. “So if a district is unnecessarily collecting tax revenues, should they be allowed to just spend it because they have it? I don’t believe they should.”
The commission, by state law, is responsible for setting the tax rate — called the mill levy — for all the entities who collect property taxes. That includes setting the county’s own rate, which has been at the maximum.
Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric has told commissioners he doesn’t believe they have the power to deny property taxes to the county’s special districts unless they are districts the county created.
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s handbook similarly advises county commissioners they can’t block districts from collecting taxes if the districts are governed by boards elected by the public. The handbook notes a 1997 Sweetwater County District Court decision stopping that county’s commission from denying some property taxes requested by a fire district. The court noted the district — just like local fire, cemetery and conservation districts — was governed by a board directly elected by voters.
French said the commission needs an opinion from the attorney general.
“If they’re saying by statute, the county commissioners of each county sets the mills (the tax rate), but yet we have no say in the (amounts of) mills, then why do we need to set the mills?” French asked.
Commissioners had planned to meet with representatives from some of the county’s districts in early June and warn them of possible cuts to their budgets, but scrapped those plans after getting Skoric’s opinion.
Commissioners have never publicly named which specific district budgets they take issue with, but it’s been a topic of discussion for a few years.
The topic came up at the commission’s Aug. 2, 2011 meeting shortly before commissioners approved the property tax mill levies.
Burke had said he was “really quite astounded” by some of the districts’ reserves, saying some have enough money to operate for six years.
“I’m beginning to wonder on some of these districts — not all of them, but some of them — at what point do they need to (not) accumulate additional reserves?” Burke said then.
County Assessor Pat Meyer previously agreed with the idea that reserves shouldn’t grow too large.
“Otherwise you’re taxing people for future things; they might not even be around 20 years later when you’re going to buy a truck or whatever it would take,” Meyer said last August.
Park County currently has about $12 million in reserve accounts, roughly enough to fund a half-year of county operations. That sum is what the county’s auditors have recommended.
If Wyoming Attorney General Gregory Phillips agrees with Skoric and the Sweetwater District Court decision to rule the county can’t adjust the district’s budgets, the commission’s only recourse for their beliefs about too large budgets could be to complain publicly.
That’s what Commissioner Joe Tilden did last year when the commission approved the separate irrigation assessments for the Heart Mountain Irrigation District.
“I’m here to tell you, if I had a say in what they charge, I would say no,” Tilden said at the time, adding, “They are exorbitant, they are hard to work with and you know the $150 additional (minimum per-property) fee is absolutely ludicrous and ridiculous. But I will vote for it because I have to.”
The manager of the Heart Mountain Irrigation District, Dan Laursen of Powell, is running for the county commission this year.
When asked about the commission’s criticism during a recent interview about his candidacy, Laursen said that “hopefully having a water person on there, they (the commission) can understand where the irrigation districts are coming from.”
“We took a big beating on some of the assessments we did,” he added. “It seems like a lot of the issues go to the commissioners ... that they don’t have a lot of say on.”