Boots & Sabers

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0547, 04 Dec 19

Gifts in the mail

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

It is that time of year again! You can feel the excitement slicing through the air like hard sleet. People all over Wisconsin are going to their mailboxes and finding their property tax bills awaiting them. Despite years of politicians promising to control property taxes, Wisconsin still has the fourth highest property tax burden in the nation.

As I wrote in a column a few weeks ago, when it comes to property taxes, the levy is everything, and spending determines the levy. When a government uses the property tax, they begin by determining how much total money they plan to spend. Then they determine how much of that spending will be funded by the property tax. That number is the levy. Then the levy is divided into the aggregate property value and the mill (tax) rate is determined. When you hear politicians bragging about the mill rate, be wary. It is one way that they camouflage more spending and higher taxes.

To illustrate this, let us walk through my property tax bill and the five governments that are forcing me to send them money by threatening to take away my home if I refuse. My example is anecdotal, of course, but I encourage all of you scrutinize your property tax bills when they arrive. The assessed value of my home remained unchanged between 2018 and 2019, so the tax changes shown are not reflective of a change in home value.

First, Moraine Park Technical College is the second smallest component of my property tax bill and it increased 2.7%. Why? Looking into MPTC’s 2019-2020 budget, which, incidentally, is a beautifully clear and detailed budget document for a government institution, they increased spending by $191,000, but due to a slight decrease in revenue from other sources, they are increasing the property tax levy by $323,000. An increase in spending and the tax levy resulted in higher taxes.

Second, the property tax for Washington County increased 1.4%. This is curious given that county officials made a big pronouncement about enacting a property tax rate decrease. Again, be wary when government officials brag about a tax rate. Looking into Washington County’s 2020 budget, the county increased the property tax levy by $683,000 to help support an overall general fund spending increase of $1.7 million. That is a 4.27% spending increase. Once again, more spending results in higher taxes.

Third, the West Bend School District’s property tax increased a whopping 7.4% on my property tax bill. Once again, district officials were bragging that they kept the tax rate flat. But again, more spending and a higher property tax levy actually leads to higher taxes irrespective of the rate. Looking at the West Bend School District’s 2020 budget, the school board approved a $2.7 million spending increase of which $1.6 million is being paid for with a larger property tax levy. It is worth noting that the school board implemented this spending and taxing increase while the number of kids that the school district is educating is decreasing.

Fourth, the city of West Bend’s portion of my property tax bill increased by 1.4%. Readers of this column will remember that the Common Council voted to increase property taxes even though they did not need to in order to support their increased spending. But they chose to increase the property tax levy by $371,000 to help support a $1.3 million increase in city spending.

Fifth, and finally, the property tax for the state of Wisconsin remained flat at zero. Spending and taxes are up at the state level too, but at least in terms of the property tax, former Governor Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature held true to their word and ended the state property tax.

In total, my property taxes increased 3.4% since last year to pay for an aggregate spending increase of $5.9 million by governments.

For those who wonder why Wisconsin’s property taxes are so high, one need only look at the budgets of the governments that feed off of the property tax. Bloated spending that gets more bloated every year results in higher taxes. The reason for high taxes is simple: it’s the spending.


0547, 04 December 2019


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