Here is my full column that ran earlier this week in the Washington County Daily News:
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.
The city of West Bend rejected the idea of putting a referendum on the ballot to ask for a big tax increase, but that is only because they chose to consider increasing taxes on their own authority. In West Bend’s case, they are arguing that they need to enact a huge tax increase to improve the roads. The numbers argue against giving them more money to spend.
In 2016, the earliest year for which city officials have chosen to publish numbers on their website, the city’s operating budget general fund spent $21.4 million. In 2022, that budget is $25.8 million. That is a 20.5% increase in spending in six years. Over the same period, the city’s population grew a negligible 0.08% from 31,702 to 31,727 according to census data. A city taxpayer might ask where all of that increased spending has been going if not to repair the roads.
The West Bend School District is in the beginning stages of thinking about asking the taxpayers for more money in a referendum as early as April of next year. As in previous referendum attempts, the school district will want to spend more money on facilities and will paint the scary picture of students being educated in unsafe conditions. Again, the numbers tell a story.
According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in fiscal year 2013, the West Bend School District spent $76.01 million. In fiscal year 2021, they spent $87.03 million. That is an increase of 14.5%. At the same time, the district saw enrollment decline 16% from 6,952 to 5,824 students according to the district’s own figures. Increasing spending in the face of declining enrollment resulted in a per-student increase in district spending of 36.7% over the last ten years. Again, a prudent district taxpayer might ask where all of that money is going if not to ensure that the students are receiving a quality education in a safe environment.
If there was any time when conservative elected leaders should be standing up for taxpayers, this is it. The taxpayers’ family budgets are already being squeezed from all directions. Conservative elected leaders should start from the position that the government has enough money and budget from there.