Boots & Sabers

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Tax increases coming in conservative Washington County

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a part:

What is going on in Washington County? The county that brags about being the most conservative county in the state is awash with proposals for massive tax increases. Several local governments and the county itself are lining up for huge tax increases during a recession when inflation is raging out of control. The numbers always tell the story. Let us dig a little into the numbers of Washington County, the city of West Bend, and the West Bend School District.


Washington County has put a referendum on the ballot this November asking the voters if they should increase the property tax levy by 9.9% to add positions to the Sheriff’s Department. County officials are selling the tax increase as necessary to combat an increase in crime and drug use that is spilling over the border from Milwaukee. Officials are also selling the notion that the tax levy rate will still decrease even with the increase. Free money, right?


Looking into the numbers, the crime and drug issues are certainly real. The portrayal of the budget is not. According to county budget information, in 2010 the county spent $118.38 million. The proposed 2023 budget is $135.37 million. That is a spending increase of 14.3% over the period. Over the same period, the county’s population increased by 4.5% according to U.S. Census data. The county has been increasing spending faster than the underlying population it serves has been growing. County officials are correct that the property tax rate has been decreasing for several years. How have they pulled off an increase in spending with a decrease in taxes? The answer is twofold. First, while the levy rate has been decreasing, the property values that it taxes have been increasing. Second, the county has been more and more reliant on the county sales tax. According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, per-capita county sales tax collections in Washington County have increased by a whopping 63% between 2010 and 2021.


Washington County has been more frugal than most governments, but that is like bragging about being the smartest Bears fan.


0732, 30 August 2022


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