Wisconsin Taxpayer Magazine County Government in Wisconsin

August 2016  •  Vol. 84 No. 8
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  • Summary
  • Press Release
  • Sometimes referred to as Wisconsin’s “invisible governments,” counties are little understood and often overlooked. Yet counties, which predate Wisconsin statehood, provide cradle-to-grave services that state government would otherwise have to provide through its own agencies. The county-state relationship is thus marked by tensions between their status as independent bodies and as arms of the state.

  • David Callender or Todd A. Berry

    Will State-County Tensions Lead to Rethinking The Relationship?

    Tensions Grow As Revenues Stagnate and Mandates Remain

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    MADISON—Pressure may be building for Wisconsin to revisit the longstanding relationship between counties the state government, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX). The report, “County Government in Wisconsin: An Overview of Organization, Responsibilities, and Funding,” points to the growing tension between the two sides in recent decades as state aids have stagnated while program mandates have increased and state-imposed property tax limits have tightened. WISTAX is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to public policy research and citizen education.
    “The situation is different for all local governments, and especially counties, than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” notes WISTAX President Todd A. Berry. “County officials contend they have limited discretion in how their counties operate and how they pay for programs.”
    The report highlights the 72 counties’ role in delivering cradle-to-grave services for state government. Major county duties include providing human services, such as care for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities, mental health, or substance abuse needs (40% of total spending); protecting public safety through sheriff’s offices (20%); and maintaining state highways and local roads (10%).
    Nearly two-thirds of county funding comes from the combination of property taxes (39%) and state aids (27%). Sixty-two counties also use an optional 0.5% sales tax.
    State aid to counties has been flat in recent years, leaving them more reliant on property taxes to pay for services, many of them state-mandated. The most significant mandate, however, is the limits the state places on property taxes, essentially freezing them in counties where there is little or no new construction.
    “Cities and villages may do anything that isn’t prohibited by state law, but counties may only do what state law allows,” Berry said. Court decisions have characterized the state-county relationship as similar to that of a parent and a child, he noted.
    If the trend toward more state intervention in local decision-making continues, WISTAX sees two distinct directions for resolving the resulting conflict. One would recognize that it may be more efficient for the state to take over services on a regional or statewide basis rather than provide them through 72 different jurisdictions.
    The other direction would recognize the value of greater decentralization and more viable local government. This could be accomplished by stronger home rule for counties or by lifting requirements that every county provide the same services. Program collaboration, or even county consolidation if voters so choose, could be promoted. Municipalities and school districts already have merger options.
    For more information, a free copy of The Wisconsin Taxpayer report, “County Government in Wisconsin: An Overview of Organization, Responsibilities, and Funding” is available by calling 608.241.9789; emailing wistax@wistax.org; visiting www.wistax.org; or writing WISTAX at 401 North Lawn Ave., Madison, WI 53704-5033. o



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