Given the state of Wyoming’s historic lack of public disclosure on many issues, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn the state is one of only 14 in the nation where the public can’t obtain sales information — including appraisals — of houses and commercial and agricultural properties.
Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo), co-chairman of the Joint Revenue Interim Committee, thought he’d give changing the law a try. He led a discussion of the pros and cons of making Wyoming a full disclosure state when the committee met in his hometown Monday.
If you already know this procedural stuff, you can skip the next few paragraphs and jump ahead to see what the committee did. But if you don’t, here’s what you need to know about the issue (please try to stay awake, because you’ll absorb the information better and you won’t have to come back here later and read it again):
Currently, there is only a short window of time for owners to see the reasons why the county has set the value of their property at a certain level for tax purposes.
Beginning in 1985, “Statements of Consideration” were required to accompany documents recorded in the county clerk’s office that transfer equitable title. There was no disclosure at all until 1996, when the Legislature allowed any property owners that appeal the county’s tax assessment access to statements that were used to determine the fair market value of their property. But it is available for only 30 days, and if they reveal it to anyone else, it’s a misdemeanor punishable by a $750 fine.
In 2009, the Legislature changed the law to allow property owners to review statements of consideration of “like use (i.e, the same type) and geographic area,” even if the assessor did not use them in the appraisal of their property.
“My problem is it seems like we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth,” Madden said. “We’re saying this is private but we’re going to give this [information] to you, but you’ve got to give it back to us in 30 days. It’s kind of silly. If it really, really wasn’t disclosable, instead of being partially disclosable, I wouldn’t see the paradox here.”
What makes the issue controversial is the fact some of the major stakeholders can’t decide whether to support public disclosure or not, while others have views that are polar opposites. Laurie Urbigkit of the Wyoming Realtors Association told the panel her organization is equally divided about whether sales information should be public or private.
Appraisers, she said, favor making it public, while the agricultural community — which Urbigkit explained is very protective of its privacy — is adamantly opposed to any change because it may include their industry under any new law.
So far that’s one group in favor, one against, and the other leaning equally to one side or the other. Thirty-six states have full disclosure laws, but Wyoming and 13 others don’t. Can you see where this is headed?
Brenda Arnold, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Revenue’s Property Tax Division, said she’s never seen a district attorney or county attorney prosecute someone for the misdemeanor of giving anyone else confidential sales information on file with the county.
“One of the other things that comes into play here is that every time the house next door goes on the market, and you get a flyer in the mail that says here’s what the property next door sold for, I know assessors get those phone calls that say, ‘Wait a minute. I thought that sales information is private, confidential information,'” Arnold explained. “[They’re] not recognizing that when you list your property with a Realtor, you are providing that Realtor with the authority to disclose that information within their own business community.”
Arnold said she thinks whether a public disclosure law would include agricultural or other commercial properties in addition to the current residential property “is really a philosophical question the legislative body needs to address. Because if it’s opened up, it’s all properties. While agricultural land’s value is [constitutionally] based on its ability to produce, if I’m trying to figure out what pasture land is selling for in my county, I would want access to those sales in my deliberation process.”
“I love this issue,” said Urbigkit, who recalled that when the law was passed in 1985, the Realtors Association was “hugely opposed” to it.
“They did not believe the sales price of private real estate should be disclosed to anybody, including the assessor,” she said. “But they went along with it begrudgingly because [the assessor] has to have the information.”
Attitudes about public disclosure have changed in recent years within the real estate industry, Urbigkit said. A survey she conducted about six years ago found members of her association equally divided on the issue, and she is planning to survey the members again at their annual meeting in September. She said those who support public disclosure “are being more vocal about it.”
In many ways what position people take seems to based on where they live. “There are pockets that say, ‘Absolutely do not let them open it up, it’s nobody’s business. This is a privacy issue.’ Then there are other areas that say, ‘Who cares, everybody knows what everyone’s houses have sold for anyway,'” she related.
“In Teton County, you’re going to have fun up there,” Urbigkit predicted. “Because that board [of county commissioners] is actually pretty equally split. … A lot of the larger sales, the owners don’t want people to know what they paid for their property.”
Park County Assessor Pat Meyer argued for full public disclosure. He said if it was left up to him, there would be a book filled with sales information on each county assessor’s counter.
“It’s more truth in taxation,” he said. “Right now, it’s almost like we’re hiding something.”
After hearing testimony from people for nearly an hour, the committee began its own discussion. It didn’t last more than a few minutes.
Madden asked if any of the members were interested in sponsoring a committee bill. Only a couple of legislators raised their hands, seemingly reluctant to take on an issue where wasn’t any consensus, even if some people don’t like the lack of transparency in the current law.
Rep. Mark Semlek (R-Moorcroft) said, “I’m just not sure full disclosure will remedy the situation for the taxpayer. … On the sales side of it, I just don ‘t know that it’s our business to help them determine what the sales price is on property. I think that’s for the [real estate] industry and the private owner to do that.”
Given the lack of members’ interest, the committee decided to do nothing about the issue this year. Sen. Fred Emerich (R-Cheyenne) said he opposed sponsoring a full disclosure bill, but it wasn’t because of any public policy concerns.
“I would suggest we don’t do it. I really would not to like disclosure [because it] would show what a dummy I was when I bought my house,” he said, to much laughter. “It’s a matter or pride.”