You might be paying too much — or too little — in property taxes. Robert Gehrke explains why.

State auditor dings state agency for a lack of oversight, but a new tool might help residents see if they’re being overcharged.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Some residents in at least two counties — and possibly throughout the state — are paying more in property taxes than they should, while others are paying less, because of breakdowns in the assessors’ offices and a lack of oversight and enforcement from the Utah State Tax Commission.

That was the conclusion reached by Utah State Auditor John Dougall recently, whose office also developed a tool to help remedy the problem that has been festering for years. More on that later.

Simply, the findings show a massive lack of accountability when it comes to administering property taxes in Utah — so much so that one of the activists who helped bring the issue to light has called for “cleaning house” inside the commission.

First, a quick explanation of the issue: Under Utah law, the value of every piece of property in a county is supposed to be reassessed

But since at least 2016, residents in Wasatch and Summit counties — which have some of the fastest-growing property values in the state — have been complaining to anyone who will listen that valuation adjustments have been inconsistent and some properties hadn’t been reassessed in years.

The reason that matters is the law is designed to make sure counties get roughly the same amount of revenue from property taxes each year. So, for example, if your property gets reassessed and mine goes years without being assessed, you will end up paying a larger share, while the amount I pay could stay the same or even go down.

The longer the problem goes on, the greater the disparity grows, not to mention those properties that don’t get reassessed might be in for a shock when the assessor finally catches up.

Tracy Taylor, head of the Wasatch Taxpayers Association and a real estate agent, had been trying to draw attention to the problem for years. Her group collected a huge trove of property records to help demonstrate the discrepancy.

Homes owned for decades by senior citizens in the older areas of Heber City were paying more than newer, larger homes that sat on three acres, she said. Property owned by county council members, school board members and other prominent residents, she said, were among those that hadn’t been re-assessed as required.

“There was no rhyme or reason to who got assessed higher every year and who hadn’t been touched,” Taylor said.

One property they identified hadn’t been audited since 2011, when the housing market was just recovering from the recession. According to data from the Federal Reserve, home prices in Wasatch County have increased by more than 220% since 2011.

Her group went to the Tax Commission, the agency that is supposed to ensure counties are complying with the law, and weren’t satisfied, so they went to legislative leaders and the governor to try to get someone to make the county obey the law and equalize the values.

Earlier this month, Dougall issued a letter to the Tax Commission taking the agency to task for failing to enforce the law.

“What we’re trying to highlight is a culture [at the Tax Commission] that had swung too far over into holding the hands of the counties and counseling them and not enough holding them accountable for noncompliance,” Dougall told me.

As the letter from Dougall’s office stated, “when clear standards of assessment uniformity are not enforced, it contributes to public mistrust of the property tax valuation process.”

Taylor is more blunt: “The very entity that is supposed to be overseeing this was the problem,” she said. “There needs to be a cleaning house at the Tax Commission.”

In response to the auditor’s letter, the Tax Commission said it was aware of the problem and had been working to address it. The skyrocketing property values in recent years made it difficult to keep pace.

And the thing is, it should never have been so difficult to resolve this — as Dougall’s staff proved.

In the span of just three weeks, one of Dougall’s staffers was able to obtain property records from all 29 county assessors in the state and load the data into a program that creates a heat map, showing when the last time every parcel of property had last been assessed.

Compared to trying to digest a massive spreadsheet, the heat map makes it easy to see parcels or neighborhoods that have been overlooked. And residents who think their valuation was too high can easily compare their valuation to that of their neighbors.

“The Tax Commission lacked the technical expertise and tools that, 30 or 40 years ago wasn’t possible,” Dougall said, “but today, for very little money and not much time, you can put up a statewide database to help proactively identify concerns and reach out to those counties and say, ‘We have issues here.’”

Dougall presented the new tool at a legislative committee meeting this week and plans to make it public soon.

While the auditor’s office focused only on Summit and Wasatch counties, we don’t really know what other counties might have similar issues.

“It could definitely be more widespread,” Dougall said, “and clearly we have heard complaints from other counties that have concerns.”

When Dougall’s app launches, we may find out how many Utahns are impacted by the lack of oversight and equity when it comes to property taxes. But it’s a problem that shouldn’t have festered for so long.

Fortunately, thanks to some engaged, vocal citizens and a dose of technology, it won’t have to for much longer.