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Auditor says state’s procedures "insufficient" to prevent property tax inequities in Wasatch Back

Memorial Hill Midway, Utah
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As property values in Wasatch County increased over recent years, residents have reported drastic increases to their assessed home values and tax bills.

Residents in Wasatch and Summit counties have complained that their recent property taxes were too high. The Utah State Auditor said a state agency failed to prevent that from happening.

Echoing complaints from people who pay property taxes in the Wasatch Back, the Office of the State Auditor said in a letter Wednesday that some property owners there have paid too much in recent years.

According to State Auditor John Dougall, the Utah State Tax Commission didn’t do enough in 2021 and 2022 to prevent inequities between Wasatch County residents’ tax bills. The letter focused on inequities in Wasatch County but said some of the same shortcomings also affected Summit County taxpayers.

The letter also says the state commission failed to take corrective action, or notify the state auditor about the inequities as required by state code.

In response to the letter, Utah State Tax Commission Executive Director Scott Smith said the past two years have exposed weaknesses in the state oversight system. He attributed that to historic increases in market values.

The auditor’s responsibilities don’t include enforcing consequences on the state tax commission, but the letter recommends several next steps. Those are things the auditor said the state tax commission should already have done, like increasing staff and oversight of county assessors.

Utah State Tax Commission spokesperson Jason Gardner said his office has worked with the auditor during the review. He said the commission is identifying main problem areas and developing strategies to address those with the county.

“Getting it guaranteed to be fully equitable this year is a tall order,” Gardner said. “This is a situation that took several years to get into, and so it may take a couple of years to get out of, but I mean, as far as devoting efforts to it, if we can do it this year, we're certainly going to strive to. I just don't know if I can make promises to that effect.”

When Wasatch County Assessor Todd Griffin took office in 2021, he said the county was already behind on assessments. Since then, he said lack of staff and resources has prevented more progress.

The letter from the auditor’s office says in 2021 and 2022, thousands of parcels in Wasatch County were not updated to reflect rapidly rising values.

In 2022, Griffin said he was taking an aggressive approach to play catchup and ensure more homes were assessed at current levels.

Still, when residents received tax bills in October, some said they were blindsided because they owed much more than in years past, and sometimes, much more than their neighbors. The auditor’s letter says in many cases, according to state code, that shouldn’t have happened.

The letter cites the Utah Constitution. It says if a county assessor fails to make sure taxpayers’ bills are proportional to market rates, “[the state tax commission] shall assist the county assessor in fulfilling the requirements.”

It also says the procedures the state commission has used to do so were ineffective.

Gardner said the Utah Legislature is considering a bill that could impact property assessments and taxes in its upcoming session. It could require counties to provide detailed parcel data for all properties within their jurisdictions to the tax commission.

The auditor’s letter is available here.

Ben Lasseter reports for KPCW in Wasatch County. Before moving to Heber City, Ben worked in Manti as a general assignment newspaper reporter and editor.
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