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Legally Speaking

 

Issue: April, 2005
Author: Thomas D. Roberts

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Assessment Appeals of Local Assessed Property

Our object herein is to offer an overview of the assessment process performed by Wyoming county assessors and outline important procedures in challenging the results of that process.

All property in Wyoming is taxable except as prohibited by the United States or Wyoming Constitutions, or expressly exempted by the Wyoming Legislature. Exemptions are generally defined by W.S. §39-11-105, although other specific exemptions can be found elsewhere. All taxable real and personal property must be valued at fair market value.

All taxable real and personal property is annually listed, valued, and assessed for taxation in the Wyoming county where it is located, and in the name of the property owner as of January 1st of each year. The Wyoming Department of Revenue is required to annually value "state-assessed" properties, including mineral production, pipeline companies, electric utilities, railroads, private railcar companies, telephone and telegraph companies, and other public utilities. Taxable property not assessed by the Department is assessed by the county assessor who lists the property at its fair market value on assessment schedules provided to the owners/taxpayers on or before the fourth Monday in April, or as soon thereafter as practicable. Each schedule must contain the estimated fair market value of the property for the current and previous year (or the productive value for agricultural property); the assessment ratio; the amount of tax assessed on the property for the previous year; as well as an estimate of the tax for the current year based upon the previous year's mill levy.

Challenges to assessment of local-assessed property are considered by county commissioners sitting as a county board of equalization, a function distinct from the responsibility of the same individuals as county commissioners. A county board of equalization may not meet earlier than the fourth Tuesday in April to consider current year assessments. The county clerk acts as clerk of the county board of equalization. In addition, the county assessor or designee must attend all county board of equalization sessions.

A taxpayer, to contest an assessment, must file a statement with the county assessor specifying the reasons why the assessment is incorrect. The filing must occur within thirty days from the date or postmark of the assessment schedule, whichever is later. Failure to use a standard form if provided by the county board is not jurisdictionally defective. Any statement by a protestant in writing, specifying the reasons why an assessment is incorrect should be sufficient. It is also important to note the requirement the taxpayer and the assessor must exchange information and documentary evidence at least fifteen days before the county board hearing.

A county board of equalization hearing is a "contested case" before an "agency,” to which the contested case procedures established by the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act (APA) should apply. The APA requirements essentially codify basic rights to which any participant in a county board hearing should be entitled. Many Wyoming counties have adopted rules and procedures for county board hearings which comply with the APA.

One procedural requirement is particularly important. A county board is statutorily prohibited from making any adjustment to a protested assessment if the protestant, after notice of the hearing, willfully neglects or refuses to appear.

The official record of evidence and argument presented at a county board hearing is extremely important. Although the Wyoming APA does not require that testimony be reported verbatim stenographically, a court reporter may be of invaluable assistance, particularly for hearings on complex properties. While many counties have excellent tape recording systems which provide official recordings of good quality, tape transcription for use on appeal is often difficult. The county board of equalization record should contain, in addition to a transcript or tape recording, all pleadings, exhibits and other documentary material presented in conjunction with the county board appeal.

Admissibility of evidence at a county board hearing is governed by the Wyoming APA. Irrelevant, immaterial and unduly repetitious evidence is to be excluded. The Wyoming Supreme Court has interpreted the APA to permit admission of hearsay evidence if the evidence is otherwise admissible under the APA, and found to be probative, trustworthy and credible. In general, evidence should be of the nature commonly relied upon by reasonably prudent persons in the conduct of their serious affairs.

A county board hearing, as an administrative proceeding governed by the APA, gives effect to the rules of privilege, including attorney-client, work product, accountant-client, self-incrimination, and executive and governmental privileges. Failure to claim a privilege may, however, be deemed a waiver making the communication or evidence admissible. Evidence protected by rules of privilege should, however, not be confused with confidential information which may be shielded from disclosure by the Wyoming Public Records Act, even if otherwise admissible.

A county board of equalization may take notice of judicially cognizable facts such as court records or almanac-type information, as well as specific technical or scientific facts within the county board's specialized knowledge, information, or data and materials included in its files. If judicial notice is taken, the board must notify all parties of the facts or information so noticed either before, during, or after the hearing. The board must afford the parties an opportunity to contest such notice before the board renders its decision.

The burden of proof in an appeal before a county board of equalization is upon the party challenging the assessment. This assessment is presumed valid, accurate and correct until overturned by credible evidence. Overcoming the presumption requires more than a simple difference of opinion as to value. If and when the assessment presumption is negated, the burden of going forward shifts to the assessor to present sufficient evidence to support the assessed value at issue.

Claims of exemption from assessment are slightly different. The party claiming an exemption has the burden to convince the county board of equalization, by a preponderance of evidence, which exemption, if any, applies.

A county board must issue its final decision in writing, or dictate the decision into the county board record. The decision must separately state findings of fact and conclusions of law. The decision, by statute, must be made no later than the first Monday in August. Although the statute utilizes the mandatory "shall" language, it does not describe what penalty, if any, will accrue if written decisions are not entered by the August date. Every effort should, however, be made to meet this deadline as tax levies are set by the county commissioners on the first Monday in August.

A county board decision is subject to State Board of Equalization review on request of either the taxpayer or the county assessor. A notice of appeal must be filed with the State Board not later than thirty days after the date of the county board decision or service thereof, whichever is later. The notice must be in writing, accompanied by a copy of the county board decision, and briefly state in ordinary and concise language the grounds upon which the appeal is based and the relief desired. The notice is considered filed with the Board when postmarked, if legible, or upon receipt by facsimile transmission.

State Board consideration is limited to the county board of equalization record, written briefs filed by the parties, and oral argument if requested and allowed. The county board decision is entitled to a presumption of validity and correctness. The State Board review is limited to a determination of whether the county board decision is: "(a) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law; (b) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or lacking statutory right; (c) without observance of procedure required by law; or (d) unsupported by substantial evidence."

The State Board will issue a written decision and order. A State Board decision, under Wyoming Rules of Appellate Procedure may be appealed to the appropriate Wyoming district court by the taxpayer/protestant, or the county board of equalization even though the county board was not a party to the State Board proceeding. The county assessor, although a party to the State Board proceeding, may not appeal.

And lest anyone think this area of the law is dry, boring, and totally without humor, please see Union Pac. R.R. v. Wyoming State Bd. of Equalization, 802 P.2d 856, page 863 n.2. (Wyo. 1990).


Thomas D. Roberts currently serves as a member of the Wyoming State Board of Equalization. He was most recently an Assistant United States Attorney, District of Wyoming. He has previously served as Laramie County Attorney, and as Executive Secretary and Legal Counsel for the State Board of Equalization.


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