Boots & Sabers

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0633, 01 Aug 22

Washington County Board should reject tax increase referendum

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

On August 10, the Washington County Board will vote on whether or not to submit to the taxpayers a referendum asking to forever raise taxes above the statutory limit to increase the size of the Sheriff’s Department. Let us hope that they come to their senses and forgo the referendum. If they do not, let us hope that the good people of Washington County have the good senses to vote it down.


The wording of the referendum may be tweaked by the County Board if they put it on the ballot, but the essence will be to ask the voters to increase taxes by almost 10% forevermore for the purpose of permanently increasing the staff of the Sheriff’s Department by about 15. The money would also be used to generally increase pay to attract and retain staff.


The increase in staffing is part of the county’s anticrime effort to combat increasing crime in the county. Is crime really increasing that much? Is the increase in crime just a reflection of the population growth? Are current resources appropriately allocated? How much of a crime reduction will the increase in staffing cause? Some of these questions were asked by supervisors on the Public Safety Committee, but answers were not forthcoming. Promising that more information would be available at the full County Board meeting, the committee unanimously approved the question to go to the full board.


There is no doubt that crime in this country is increasing largely thanks to intentionally lax law enforcement in our largest cities and the unending tide of illegal aliens flowing across our borders. Fighting crime is a legitimate duty of government and citizens in Washington County have always been supportive of law enforcement.


Budgets, however, are about priorities. Washington County spends almost $140 million per year on all functions. The Sheriff’s Department takes about $23 million, or 16.4% of the budget. If fighting crime is truly a priority, are the County Board and county executive really not able to reallocate funding from the other 83.6% of the budget? Instead, they want taxpayers to reallocate their family budgets to pay for that increase in spending?


County supervisors should also remember that they do not operate in a vacuum. The citizens who pay those taxes are facing a hard time financially. President Biden’s inflation economy is making prices rise faster than they have in 40 years. Unfortunately, most people’s incomes are not keeping up, so real income is dropping like a rock. Fuel prices are robbing people of mobility and everything is just getting more expensive. Families are cutting back on unnecessary expenses.


Meanwhile, times are good in government. After several years of money raining out of Washington from the Trump and Biden administrations to attempt to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic, local governments have been awash in spending cash. Now they are reaping the benefits of inflation because taxes are based on percentages. As the median home price in southeast Wisconsin has risen 48% since January of 2020, according to the Wisconsin Realtors Association, property taxes have risen accordingly.


So, too, has the sales tax. Washington County passed a county sales tax years ago that was sold as a temporary emergency need. They have since made the tax permanent and continue to spend the proceeds. As the prices of goods and services have risen with inflation, so has the money spent on sales taxes. Washington County will likely see a record year in sales tax collections in 2022. Where will that money go? Could it be used to fund a spending increase in the Sheriff’s Department instead of asking the taxpayers to send even more money to the county?


Nobody questions that fighting crime is important and that Washington County deserves a properly funded Sheriff’s Department to meet the needs of the day. But using the current heightened concern about crime to call for a tax increase during a time when inflation is rampant and the economy is slipping into recession borders on the kind of cynicism we expect in Milwaukee – not Washington County.


The Washington County Board should decline to ask the taxpayers for more money and fund the increase in spending for the Sheriff’s Department if it is truly needed. The county has enough of our tax dollars to deliver on their obligations.


0633, 01 August 2022


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