Eisele v. Town of Pine Bluffs

Decision Date19 February 2020
Docket NumberS-19-0037
Citation458 P.3d 46
Parties Trudy L. EISELE, Laramie County Treasurer and Kenneth Guille, Laramie County Assessor, Appellants (Respondents), v. The TOWN OF PINE BLUFFS, Appellee (Petitioner).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellants: Mark T. Voss, Laramie County Attorney, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee: Alexander Davison and Caleb C. Wilkins of Patton and Davison, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Wilkins.


DAVIS, Chief Justice.

[¶1] The Town of Pine Bluffs owns and operates a daycare facility. Laramie County assessed property taxes on the facility based upon its conclusion that it was not used primarily for a governmental purpose. Pine Bluffs appealed, following the administrative process to its end. The County Board of Equalization ruled against the Town, and the State Board of Equalization affirmed that decision. The district court ruled in favor of the Town. We reverse the district court's decision and reinstate the order of the County Board.


[¶2] The County Treasurer and County Assessor, Appellants, present this issue:

Was the Laramie County Board of Equalization's affirmance of the Laramie County Assessor's denial of a request for exemption from taxation, for a daycare facility operated by the Town of Pine Bluffs, in accordance with law, not arbitrary, capricious, [or] an abuse of discretion, and supported by substantial evidence in the record?

[¶3] The facts in this case are largely undisputed. Pine Bluffs began offering daycare services in the 1970s to address a public need for childcare. At the time, there were no daycare services in Pine Bluffs. The facility was operated initially in part of the community center, but in 2009 it was moved to a separate building. As approved in a special election, Pine Bluffs used optional sales tax revenue to purchase and renovate the new facility.

[¶4] Over the years, private daycare providers in Pine Bluffs have come and gone. When a private daycare facility opened in 2015, the Town considered closing its operation. However, the governing body determined that there was still a need to provide daycare options. As the Mayor of Pine Bluffs testified at the hearing before the County Board;

[T]hese private [daycare facilities] in our small town have just come and gone too often to take the chance on doing away with what we felt was a sure opportunity [to provide] service to the community.

[¶5] For a variety of reasons, Pine Bluffs has a particular need for daycare options that has not been met by the private sector in terms of quality, types, and stability of services. Daycare services became even more important when local schools changed to a four-day school week. In addition, the Pine Bluffs facility offers a preschool program that teaches social skills, ABCs, numbers, and colors. Children in the daycare center are also given lessons in Spanish and sign language.

[¶6] Pine Bluffs has never intended to earn a profit from its daycare services. The center has always operated at a fiscal loss. The Town is willing to incur these losses to offer safe and stable daycare to the public.

[¶7] In 2015, the Town filed a complaint against the County Treasurer and County Assessor, seeking to enjoin them from assessing and collecting property taxes on the daycare facility. Town of Pine Bluffs v. Eisele , 2017 WY 117, ¶ 1, 403 P.3d 126, 127 (Wyo. 2017). We ruled that the district court had correctly dismissed the complaint because, under the circumstances presented, the Town's remedy was available only through the administrative process. Id. ¶ 27, 403 P.3d at 132. In other words, the Town must appeal the assessment of its daycare facility to the County Board of Equalization, and "appeal from an unfavorable decision there to the state board of equalization ... and from there to petition the district court for review, and ultimately to appeal to this Court." Id. ¶ 5, 403 P.3d at 128.

[¶8] In 2016, the Town did just that. It filed requests for exemption, which the County Assessor denied. Pine Bluffs appealed to the County Board, which held a hearing on the matter, and issued a decision affirming the County Assessor's denial. The Town appealed to the State Board, which affirmed the County Board's decision. Continuing on with the required administrative process, the Town appealed to the district court, which ruled in favor of Pine Bluffs and reversed the decision of the State Board. The County Assessor and County Treasurer took the final step in the process, and appealed to this Court.


[¶9] Our review of this agency action is governed by the Wyoming Administrative Procedure Act. Section 16-3-114(c) (LexisNexis 2019) provides in relevant part:

(c) To the extent necessary to make a decision and when presented, the reviewing court shall decide all relevant questions of law, interpret constitutional and statutory provisions, and determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action. In making the following determinations, the court shall review the whole record or those parts of it cited by a party and due account shall be taken of the rule of prejudicial error. The reviewing court shall:
(ii) Hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings and conclusions found to be:
(A) Arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law [or] ....
(E) Unsupported by substantial evidence in a case reviewed on the record of an agency hearing provided by statute.

We have long recognized that substantial evidence "is more than a mere scintilla" of evidence; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [an agency's] conclusion." Howard v. Lindmier , 67 Wyo. 78, 87, 214 P.2d 737, 740 (1950). It is also well established that "[q]uestions of law are reviewed de novo , and [c]onclusions of law made by an administrative agency are affirmed only if they are in accord with the law.’ " Maverick Motorsports Grp., LLC v. Dep't of Revenue , 2011 WY 76, ¶ 12, 253 P.3d 125, 128 (Wyo. 2011) (quoting Bowen v. State, Dep't of Transp ., 2011 WY 1, ¶ 7, 245 P.3d 827, 829 (Wyo. 2011) (quoting State ex rel. Workers' Safety & Comp. Div. v. Garl , 2001 WY 59, ¶ 9, 26 P.3d 1029, 1032 (Wyo. 2001) )).

[¶10] Significantly, in this case our review is focused on the decision of the County Board. We do not defer to the decision of the State Board or to that of the district court. Britt v. Fremont County Assessor , 2006 WY 10, ¶ 17, 126 P.3d 117, 123 (Wyo. 2006) ; Laramie County Bd. of Equalization v. Wyoming State Bd. of Equalization , 915 P.2d 1184, 1188 (Wyo. 1996). As we have explained:

Since in this case the county board was the finder of the fact and the state board heard no additional testimony, we will treat the state board as an intermediate level of review and accord deference only to the county board's findings of fact. Thus, the primary focus of our review will be whether the county board's decision was lawful and supported by substantial evidence.

Union Pac. R.R. v. Wyo. State Bd. of Equalization , 802 P.2d 856, 859 (Wyo. 1990).

[¶11] Pine Bluffs contends that the decision on whether its property is "used primarily for a governmental purpose" is a finding of ultimate fact, and therefore subject to de novo review. The district court agreed, relying on Mountain Vista Retirement Residence v. Fremont County Assessor , 2015 WY 117, ¶ 4, 356 P.3d 269, 272 (Wyo. 2015).

[¶12] Pine Bluffs is correct that the key question in this case is whether the town's daycare facility is "used primarily for a governmental purpose." However, Pine Bluffs and the district court overemphasize the importance of how the County Board's answer to that question is characterized.1 Whether we treat the County Board's answer to that question as a finding of ultimate fact or as a conclusion of law, we review its decision de novo, while we review the findings of fact underlying that decision to see if they are supported by substantial evidence. We have applied this standard of review in a number of similar cases. E .g. , Oakley v. Fremont County Cmty. Coll. Dist. , 2010 WY 106, ¶¶ 8-9, 236 P.3d 1004, 1006-07 (Wyo. 2010) ; Deromedi v. Town of Thermopolis (In re Deromedi) , 2002 WY 69, ¶¶ 8-9, 45 P.3d 1150, 1153 (Wyo. 2002) ; Town of Thermopolis v. Deromedi (In re Town of Thermopolis) , 2002 WY 70, ¶¶ 11-12, 45 P.3d 1155, 1159-60 (Wyo. 2002).


[¶13] Article 15, Section 12 of the Wyoming Constitution provides:

The property of the United States, the state, counties, cities, towns, school districts and municipal corporations, when used primarily for a governmental purpose, and public libraries, lots with the buildings thereon used exclusively for religious worship, church parsonages, church schools and public cemeteries, shall be exempt from taxation, and such other property as the legislature may by general law provide.

Wyo. Const. art. 15, § 12. Implementing this constitutional provision is Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 39-11-105 (LexisNexis 2019), which states in pertinent part:

(a) The following property is exempt from property taxation:
(v) Property of Wyoming cities and towns owned and used primarily for a governmental purpose including:
(A) Streets and alleys and property used for the construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of streets and alleys;
(B) Property used to furnish sewer and water services;
(C) City or town halls, police stations and equipment, traffic control equipment, garbage collection and disposal equipment and lands and buildings used to service and repair the halls, stations or equipment;
(D) Parks, airports, auditoriums, cemeteries, golf courses, playgrounds and recreational facilities. Any charges for the use of the facilities shall not exceed the cost of operation and maintenance to qualify for the exemption;
(E) Personal property used exclusively for the care, preservation and administration of city or town property;

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