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0819, 29 Dec 15

Wisconsin is still a property tax hell

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

As we finish up 2015, many of us are making the yearly trek to City Hall to pay our property tax bills. As one of the “big three” taxes in Wisconsin, property taxes continue to be very high. Wisconsin has the fourth highest property tax burden in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. There has been some positive movement, however, and Republican legislators are continuing to make efforts to help Wisconsin property tax payers.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the estimated property tax bill for a median-valued home in Wisconsin increased 0.6 percent in 2015, but that is after four consecutive years of property tax decreases. Overall, property taxes on a median-valued Wisconsin home are down about 4 percent since Gov. Scott Walker was elected and Act 10 was passed.

The property tax impact on individual Wisconsinites vary greatly depending on where one lives. Act 10 gave local governments some great tools to control spending and taxes, but those tools are only as good as the local elected officials who wield them. Those of us in West Bend are faring better than average. As I look at my property tax bill, which includes taxes for the city of West Bend, Washington County, West Bend School District, Moraine Park Technical College and the State of Wisconsin, the average tax rate is down about 5 percent since 2010 — more than the state average.

The reason residents of West Bend are faring better than most Wisconsinites on their property tax bills is because our local taxing jurisdictions have been exercising some fiscal discipline, using the tools available from Act 10, and keeping taxes from increasing while maintaining quality government services. It is true there is a lot more they could do to benefit the citizens they serve, but they are doing better than most.

Some state legislators are continuing to look for ways to follow up the gigantic success of Act 10 with ways to control property taxes. Sen. Duey Stroebel and Rep. Michael Schraa have proposed a bill that would limit the ability of school districts to manipulate the referendum process to their advantage.

Currently, state law limits how much school boards can increase property taxes, but the school boards can ask the voters to exceed those limits through a referendum. School boards have typically asked to exceed the limits for large capital projects, but some have also asked for more taxes for normal operating expenses. But the key is that the school board must make the case to the voters and the local district voters get to decide.

The problem is that some school boards have sought to manipulate the referendum process to engineer a “yes” vote. With any referendum, the voters can vote “no” repeatedly, but they only need to vote “yes” once. So what some school boards have done is to propose a ridiculous referendum knowing it will likely fail. Then they ask for another referendum in short order that is still ridiculous, but slightly cut down to give the veneer of reasonableness. They repeat the process until the voters are worn down and vote for the referendum.

Some school boards also schedule referendum votes on odd dates — like the middle of January — when nothing else is on the ballot and the special interests are far more motivated to show up at the polls. All of these little sleights of hand by some school boards warp the process and are designed to juice what is supposed to be a fair, reasoned local debate about whether or not to increase taxes more than state law allows.

Stroebel and Schraa’s bill would do two main things. First, it would require school boards only schedule referendum votes during a normally scheduled spring or fall election. This is a common-sense measure that not only ensures the highest possible turnout for the vote, but also protects taxpayers from having to pay for an abnormal election schedule.

The second thing the bill would require is for school boards to wait at least a year between referendums. This is another common-sense measure that prevents voters from being hammered with repeated referenda until a recalcitrant school board gets its tax increase. It also encourages school boards to be more thoughtful before putting a referendum to the voters. If they only get one shot per year, they are more likely to put their most reasonable, carefully thought out proposal up the first time instead of playing games.

These simple changes to the referendum process still allow ample local control for citizens of school districts to raise their taxes if they so choose while still providing some protections for the rest of the state and federal taxpayers who pay for 53 percent of all school spending. If Wisconsin is ever going to get out of the top five states with the highest property taxes, it will take much more aggressive discipline from local elected officials as well as further reform from state lawmakers. This bill is a good, if small, next step.


0819, 29 December 2015


  1. Steve Austin

    I think the Stroebel/Schraa bill is fantastic. And if some out-state GOP’ers like Luther Olsen don’t like it, I think the tradeoff to them is the fact we have not unleashed charter schools and the choice program statewide and unfettered like could have been done.

    All voters are asking is that the School boards act judiciously with their long-term planning.

  2. WI tax payer

    Walker claimed to hold the line on property taxes. He could do more to encourage the gutless state legislature. New district reps like Ducow-99th have turned out to be total frauds. The best thing anyone can do is to show up at your school board meetings and let them hear it. Otherwise, vote the bastards out.

  3. John Foust

    Why shouldn’t school boards be able to act as quickly as the legislature?

  4. Stiles

    I think limited referenda votes to normally scheduled elections makes sense. It’s pretty rare that school boards schedule them on special dates (can probably count it on one, maybe two hands, in the last decade), but it’s an additional cost and is intended as a way to select the electorate so it shouldn’t happen.

    The problem I have with the one year restriction is that there are times when there are community disagreements about a construction plan or cap override where the first no vote moves the proposal to another fork in the road that may have strong community support. There is no harm in letting the revised proposal going to the voters at the next normally scheduled election instead of waiting a year.

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