Dramatic property tax increases make Jackson Hole residents reconsider life plans

JACKSON — Crowds had started to form at Albertsons where Cindy Dahlin was trying to run errands last week.

“I couldn’t even get to my car because everybody in the lobby and the sidewalk was just talking about ‘Did you open your letter? Don’t go home and get your mail. It’s going to ruin your day.’ ”

The letters causing the panic were Teton County property value assessments.

True to Assessor Melissa Shinkle’s word, estimated property taxes had increased by an average of 30% to 50%. 

That jump is attributable to high assessed values, which are calculated in different neighborhoods from the record-setting local real estate sales of 2021. The assessed values are multiplied by a number of “mills” to assess property taxes. The state sets the vast majority of the mills, with counties able to decide up to 12 mills. In 2021, the Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved 7.39 mills out of the 12 they’re authorized to levy.

Dahlin saw her tax estimate go from just under $6,000 to nearly $10,000.

That left Dahlin and her husband, Jeff, who has retired from the Post Office, with some big questions.

Should they move? That would mean leaving their six grown children and six grandkids who live here.

Could they find more work? Two days before Dahlin, 68, got her letter, she’d told her employer at the Presbyterian Church that she’d need to go part-time this summer to help rehab her recent knee replacement.

Should they raise the rent on the unit above the garage? Dahlin did raise rent by $100 a month to $1,200. That still left about an additional $250 to find.

What about buying a camper to park in their kids’ backyards for a few months at a time?

That’s still just a joke Dahlin makes to her kids. Four of them are teachers, she said, and their tables wouldn’t be big enough.

Ultimately, Dahlin said, she and Jeff will do what they must to stay, but they’re not looking forward to it.

“I really don’t want to work full time. But what happens if I need to work full time?” she said. “Just do this till you’re 95 and drop dead?”

Since receiving their tax estimates, Dan and Suzanne Marino have been asking the same questions as Dahlin from the perspective of landlords.

The Marinos have spent the 40 years they’ve been in the valley running small businesses, employing hundreds of workers.

When Suzanne desperately needed employees to work in Cadillac Grille — now Local restaurant and bar on Town Square — she would not only offer night-of cash payment and New York steak dinners, but housing wherever people could fit.

“I’ve had employees living at my house throughout the years. I had employees living on the deck behind the Cadillac. I had employees living in the basement,” Suzanne said.

The Cadillac Grille closed in 2012. But Suzanne still fills out the paperwork every year to verify that the tenants in the condo they purchased for the workforce meet deed-restriction rules.

As landlords, Dan and Suzanne say they’ve voluntarily rent-controlled their unit as long as they’ve had it. During a few months of the pandemic, they forgave rent payments that didn’t show.

And though they’ve been fighting the same housing issues for decades, they are losing their ability to help, they say, against an estimated 38-percent property tax increase this year after a 25-percent increase last year.

That’s on top of rising HOA charges, replacing appliances, and rising labor costs.

After running Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Co., and the popular eateries Cadillac Grille and Lift, the couple retired to Alpine in Lincoln County. Their income is solely rent and Social Security.

In order to continue supporting the local workforce, they’ve placed another offer on a condo in town, an investment Suzanne says her brother, a land developer, has calculated to yield about a 2.5-percent return. But after opening their property tax envelope, knowing that burden will be passed along to the renter, they’re reconsidering all their options.

After her decades in Jackson Hole, Suzanne said she can’t wrap her mind around renting to someone outside the local workforce.

But there are no incentives to do so, they say, and they’ll end up passing costs to the very people they want to help.

“We are totally for workforce in Teton County,” Dan said, “but we can’t lose money doing it. We have to survive, too.”

Nancy Brumsted also wondered what the property tax increases would mean for the community.

“You just kind of wonder what’s going to happen to Jackson,” Nancy Brumsted said, “Is it just going to be Disneyland? Or is it going to be a real place?”

Nancy and her husband, Alan, performed “creative maneuvers” like picking up weekend and summer jobs to get a foothold in the Jackson housing market decades ago and refinancing to lower their monthly house payment.

The fixer-upper they bought 25 years ago off South Park Loop Road has seen tax increases of 337 percent, according to Alan’s calculations, in the last four years alone.

What progress they might have made by refinancing, Brumsted said, was completely wiped out by property tax increases.

They’ll have to come up with an extra $242 a month, she said, and they’re on fixed income supplemented by Nancy’s violin lessons.

They’re both retired school district teachers — Alan now serves on the school board — so they understand that 75% of their property tax money goes to education.

“That’s great that schools benefit,” Brumsted said. “We’re not against paying taxes … [but] every year is completely ruining us. It’s completely ironic.”

For one Teton County renter, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing his housing prematurely, there’s less uncertainty about what property tax increases will mean for his future. He’s already on Zillow, he said.

The renter has worked on and off in Teton County for nine years, living with his girlfriend for the last four years in a room they found via social media. There’s a communal kitchen upstairs, shared by renters in another two rooms, and rent is now $1,700 a month.

The landlord also lives with them and this year, the landlord sent out the property tax assessment letter in a group text.

The renter got the group text with the other tenants — a picture of the property assessment, with the new assessed value, the change since last year, and the new rent starting May 1. That amounted to $800 more a month split among the three rooms.

Sure, that was blunt, but the renter wasn’t surprised.

“Like what did we really expect was going to happen when there wasn’t necessarily a deep inventory for rental properties to begin with?” he said.

In his early thirties, the renter has worked in hospitality and retail with a second job at Grand Teton National Park during the summer, making the instability work. But seeing the text this year, he said, was an inflection point.

His month-to-month leases might be more of a blessing this time around than a curse as he looks for a new place.

And though he’s hoping to start over in someplace more stable, unlike people on fixed income or with close families, the renter still had big questions:

“You can contest if the American Dream is dead or alive,” he said, “but like, if you don’t give people that opportunity, what do you really call it?”

For the first time since 2019, Wyoming lawmakers funded the Property Tax Refund Program. 

You can qualify for a refund up to 50 percent of the property tax you paid in 2021 if you meet the following criteria:

You’ve been a Wyoming resident for the past five years, have a household income in Teton County of $73,658  or less and your personal assets do not exceed $133,651 per adult household member. 

In other words, if you own other real estate, bank accounts and investments, they cannot value in excess of $133,651 per adult household member. However, you may exclude the value of your home, a car for each adult household member, and any retirement accounts like IRAs, 401k plans and Medical Savings. 

The filing deadline is June 6. 

More information can be found at TetonCountyWy.gov/440/Property-Tax-Refund-Program or by calling the Treasurer’s office at 307-733-4770.