Challenged by Laird, Commission reasserts it has limited authority on property taxes

Commission candidate and attorney Dallas Laird speaks to the commission Tuesday 6/7/22 (Gregory Hirst, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Natrona County Commission’s limited authority to affect property taxes was again questioned during public comment at the Commission’s regular meeting Tuesday, this time by commission candidate Dallas Laird.

Laird, a civil and criminal attorney, implored the Commission to find a more direct solution to Natrona County’s rising property taxes.

“These people are in turmoil,” Laird said.

Laird also questioned whether the board could effectively advocate for taxpayers when the county attorney has historically represented the assessor at hearings.

“Who is giving the county the advice you guys have been getting with respect to what you can do to help people with these huge tax hikes?” Laird said. “I don’t know how you can do it when you have a county attorney you hire that’s representing the assessor. … It’s confusing to the public.”

Laird said the conventions of law he was familiar with prohibited an attorney from going on to represent opposing parties.

By state statute, the county attorney can represent either the commission or the county assessor, but not both at the same time, Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson told Oil City. For the 2020 hearings, the commission hired Heather-Duncan Malone, a previous county attorney, to act as hearing officer and lay out the evidence for the commission during hearings. In 2021, former County Attorney Bill Knight was hired.

Laird questioned whether the commission or Nelson had hired those officers.

“We did,” said Commissioner Rob Hendry in response, saying it was “not right” for Laird to suggest the arrangement deprived the commission of proper counsel.

Commissioner Peter Nicolaysen, a longtime real estate attorney, also responded to Laird’s comments.

“I appreciate that Dallas is running for office for one of these chairs, and that this is kind of turning into the Dallas Laird TV show,” he said. “And I resent that, because Dallas knows, as an attorney, that if he has a problem with representation, as a citizen of this county he can send a letter to any number of agencies or to the county board or Mr. Nelson if he has questions about perceived or real conflicts of interest.”

Laird said the commission might be able to do more on the taxpayer’s behalf, and that taxpayers might join a class-action lawsuit.

“I can tell you, if I get on this board, with my legal authority I will research everything any lawyer tells you to make sure what they’re giving you is good advice,” Laird said.

“I think there are things you can do, and perhaps you should consider, that would help our people and their battle [against] high taxes,” Laird continued. “People have fought high taxes since the beginning of our country; they started by throwing tea in Boston Harbor when they were being overtaxed. The people have to protect themselves, I guess, and they’ll do it. Their power of the vote is going to come in very strongly, I think, this time.”

The commission reminded Laird and others who spoke on property taxes that the commissioners have had little success appealing cases they felt were unfair to the state. Property tax policies are set by the Department of Revenue.

†[It’s] kind of the grand jury on it,” Bertoglio explained.

“When we find things that we think don’t pass the smell test, and we send it back, the State Board of Equalization comes back and says we don’t have the authority to make that call,” Bertoglio told another taxpayer.

“It was a futile effort,” Bertoglio told Laird.

Bertoglio said he and some Natrona County state elects had lobbied for various statutory reforms ahead of the last legislative session that would give the commission more flexibility, or give taxpayers more options for relief. The county assessor himself has suggested the state can adjust the rate it sets when the final tax bill is calculated.

Though those measures have failed thus far, Bertoglio added that rising property taxes, once considered a problem solely for Teton and Natrona Counties, were now becoming a statewide issue.

“The pressure this year is going to be immense,” Bertoglio said. “This is across the state. … Something’s going to break this year.”

“There is really nothing that can be done until the laws and regulations are changed,” Nicolaysen told Laird, “so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t get up and grandstand and tell us we’re doing something wrong, when clearly our hands are tied.”

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