When nobody was looking, West Bend became liberal

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

While the national political scene continues to dominate our attention, local politicians are making decisions that will more directly impact our everyday lives. In the city of West Bend, the Common Council has taken a lurch to the left and is pushing for the second property tax increase in as many years. What is happening in West Bend is a good case study for how much local leadership matters and how easy it is for the big spenders to seize control when the citizens get lazy.

West Bend has always been a conservative community. Like many smallish conservative cities, the city was run by a close cabal of old-time Benders for a long time. Well-meaning, but without much vision, the city leadership plodded along steadily raising spending, raising taxes, increasing debt, and seemingly intent on just making sure everybody would go along to get along.

Springing out of the national tea party movement, local conservatives began to look seriously at the city’s governance in 2009. Groups like Concerned Citizens of Washington County sprang up with the express purpose of recruiting, encouraging, and supporting conservatives to run for local office.

It worked. Election after election, principled conservatives ran for local office and won. In the city of West Bend, the result was a slate of conservative council members and a conservative mayor who were intent on leading the city in a conservative direction. In 2011 they passed a flat-tax-levy budget and then cut the tax levy by 5% in 2012. For the rest of the decade, conservative leadership meant flat taxes year after year, a dramatic improvement in the city’s debt load, the shedding of unfunded liabilities for retired employees, and frugal spending. Along the way, the city upgraded the riverwalk, made parks selfsustained, expanded the police station and City Hall, and attracted businesses to locate and expand in West Bend.

It was a good run, but it is over now. After a decade of good governance, local conservatives got lazy. They stopped recruiting and supporting new conservatives to run for local office. The big spenders and lefties returned to power as local conservatives twiddled their thumbs and harrumphed at each other.

Over the past several elections, big spenders and lefties ran for, and won, seats on the Common Council. They are in firm control. The new mayor, Chris Jenkins, trumpets his conservatism in public, but has proven too weak to provide firm conservative leadership in the face of opposition.

Last year the Common Council passed a property tax increase even though the city had the money to pay for the entire budget without raising taxes. They passed a tax increase because they wanted to see if the public would scream too loud. Aldermen John Butschlick, Mark Allen, Steve Hoogester, Justice Madl, and Roger Kist voted to increase taxes. Aldermen Andrew Chevalier, Chris Jenkins, and Rich Kasten voted against a tax increase. Since then, all three of the aldermen who voted against the tax increase have left the council and Jenkins was elected mayor.

This year, the council is proposing a 5% tax levy increase that will be used to increase spending and pad employee compensation. Most city employees will receive a pay increase with at least one high-level employee receiving a $12,125, or 11%, raise. Meanwhile, the city in increasing the percentage of premiums that taxpayers cover by about 1%. A city employee will pay 13% of the premium for a family plan under the new budget. The average going rate for Wisconsin private-sector employees is more than twice that.

Just like last year, the city does not need to increase taxes. Thanks to new construction, the city will get a 4% increase in the tax levy without increasing taxes on everyone. Just like last year, the Common Council seems determined to raise taxes anyway. The budget calls for a 5% levy increase. A council dominated by former public employees seems resentful that a year should pass without increasing taxes. It is easier to keep increasing taxes a little every year and finding a place to spend it instead of only asking for a tax increase when they need it.

Alderwoman Meghann Kennedy has been the lone voice for fiscal conservatism on the council as the rest seem intent on passing annual tax increases irrespective of the need or the property owners’ ability to pay. 2020 has been a tough year for many, but that fact seems lost in the halls of city government.

As I write this column, the public hearing for the budget is in the future. As you read this, the hearing is in the past. Irrespective of how the hearing went or how the council votes, the only way to truly return West Bend to conservative fiscal management is to elect the principled conservatives who will lead future councils. The liberals will always fill a leadership vacuum. If conservatives in West Bend want to see conservative leadership, they will need to get off their duffs and put some effort into it. The same is true all over Wisconsin. Leadership starts locally.

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