County officials apologize, say error ‘should have been caught’
SALT LAKE CITY — At the beginning of an emergency Wasatch County Council meeting last month, Council Chairman Danny Goode said a brief prayer ahead of what he knew was going to be a tough discussion.
“Dear God, help us all,” he said.
The Nov. 4 meeting was to address a clerical error that’s now creating a headache for taxing entities across the entire county — including one that could end up hitting taxpayers in their wallets over the next several years.
The error? An erroneous overvaluation of a single home for almost $1 billion.
The 1,570-square-foot house built in 1978 on 2 acres in an unincorporated area of the county was recorded in 2019 tax rolls with a market rate value of more than $987 million and an overestimate of about $543 million in taxable value. In reality, the property should have only had a 2019 taxable value of $302,000, according to county property records.
That error — which the Wasatch County assessor explained possibly occurred when a staff member may have dropped their phone on their keyboard — has resulted in a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and revenue shortfalls in five different Wasatch County taxing entities. The biggest impact was on the Wasatch County School District, unable to collect nearly $4.4 million already budgeted.
Wasatch County officials say they “deeply regret” the error and are reviewing policies and procedures to ensure it never happens again. But they’re also warning Wasatch County taxpayers they will likely see an increased tax rate over perhaps the next three years to make up for the lower amount collected in 2019.
“An abnormality of almost $1 billion is a big deal, and it should have been caught,” County Manager Mike Davis told the Deseret News in an interview Thursday. “There are checks in place that it should have been looked at. We will modify those in the future and do a better job.”
County Assessor Maureen “Buff” Griffiths called the error “horrific” and “bizarre” when she appeared before the County Council last month to explain how it happened.
“I’m thinking it was a data entry that would be something like they dropped their phone on the keyboard and it kicked out all these numbers without verifying,” she said. “That’s how crazy it was.”
Buff Griffiths estimates the error took place in May as her office was preparing tax rolls for a June deadline, yet it wasn’t caught until months later — after the tax rate was certified by the Utah State Tax Commission and property tax notices were sent out in July. It wasn’t discovered until October, when Clerk/Auditor Cal Griffiths said he studied a “top 25” list of taxpayers.
“I saw this humongous number, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty big,’” Cal Griffiths told the Deseret News, explaining that he brought it to the attention of the assessor’s office, which then corrected it in the system.
The homeowner — who, according to county property records, has a mailing address in Idaho — wasn’t even aware of the error until they were contacted by the assessor’s office, Cal Griffiths said.
“They were none the wiser, thank goodness, and grateful that we amended it,” she said.
But at that point, it was too late for the impact to the county.
Budgets had already been approved expecting that windfall of $6 million, and the tax rate for the year had already been set anticipating that revenue would come in from that property owner, meaning taxpayers countywide paid slightly less in property taxes for 2019.
From year to year, state law allows tax rates to fluctuate to ensure stability in government budgets — and property value fluctuations happen all the time as taxpayers appeal their values — but Danny Lytle, director of the Utah State Tax Commission’s property tax division said he’s never seen an overvaluation issue with as much impact as what’s happened in Wasatch County.
“I’m not aware of any that is of this magnitude,” he said.
It’s “virtually impossible” to say how Wasatch County taxpayers will be impacted to recoup the money that should have been collected, Lytle said, but he noted Wasatch County officials have the option to spread out the impact over perhaps three or five years if they choose.
Davis said the council is likely to choose the three-year option, though that decision will be hashed out in a County Council meeting expected in January. Davis said county officials are working with the Utah State Tax Commission to figure out what to do.
In Wasatch County’s budget, the shortfall is more than $1 million — which Davis said the county will offset with fund balance reserves to be recouped by rate increases in future years. The Wasatch County Fire District will be short about $253,000, the Wasatch County Parks District will be short about $138,000, and Central Utah Water will be short about $217,000, according to a tax correction notice circulated by the county.
But the biggest blow is to Wasatch County School District, short about $4.4 million — which will have a “significant impact” on the district, according to spokesman John Moss.
“Fortunately, when news of the projected one-year 21% increase in overall property value for Wasatch County was received, the district chose to remain somewhat conservative in building the 2019-20 school district budget,” Moss said in a statement to the Deseret News. “Because of these conservative projections, the impact of the lost funding will be managed by the district over the next few years, even though there will be some significant negative impact felt in select areas.”
Moss said the district will need to “draw down” from financial reserves and reduce spending in some areas, including ongoing teacher in-service programs and other investments in professional development programs for staff members.
“Teacher and staff salaries will not be impacted this year, he said. “However, some of the capital projects that were scheduled or proposed will need to be canceled or postponed due to lack of funds.”
During last month’s emergency County Council meeting, council members sought answers to how this error could have happened, why it wasn’t caught, and how to ensure it never happens again.
“I think it goes without saying we need to examine policies and procedures and quality control to look at this,” Davis told the council.
Davis explained he wasn’t even aware of the error until the first weekend of November, after a citizen requested a property tax list and noticed the valuation looked way off. Davis said that’s when he launched his own investigation, and he discovered the Assessor’s Office error. That lead the County Council to call the Nov. 4 emergency meeting.
Even though the assessor said her office corrected the error in its system, a search of the property in the Wasatch County online parcel map still shows the over $987 million market rate value.
Asked how the over $6 million countywide revenue windfall went unnoticed, the county’s manager and assessor, as well as Utah State Tax Commission officials, told the Deseret News it was chalked up to growth in the booming county — which has been the third-fastest growing county in recent years.
“Nobody was surprised the values were going up. Nobody,” Buff Griffiths told the Deseret News. “But we’re going to check it moving forward, that yes, the values are going up, but are they going up that much?”
Davis said he initially did have questions about the $6 million projection, but he “didn’t dig” into it after the assessor’s office attributed it to growth.
“I did ask the question,” Davis said, but then he let it go, thinking, “OK, as long as somebody’s checking into it. But obviously somebody didn’t.”
“So I take some of the blame for that,” Davis said. “If I noticed something, I should have pursued it more, but I didn’t.”
To be fair, Wasatch County is indeed experiencing rapid growth, Lytle said, but “it’s not an excuse for this mistake, this error.”
The assessor said due to the county’s rapid growth, her staff has struggled to keep up, and she’s asked to “please get us some help in that office.”
Lytle said the Utah State Tax Commission has been working with the assessor’s office to “make sure they understand the capabilities of their system” and to ensure the staff is trained to catch such mistakes.
Buff Griffiths said she has been apologizing to taxpayers for the error.
“It’s very unfortunate,” she said. “We’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt our people again.”