‘Deliver Common-Sense Levy Limit Reform in This Budget’: My Remarks to the Joint Finance Committee

The legislature’s Join Finance Committee held its only Milwaukee-area budget public hearing on Wednesday in Oak Creek.

And while I had to leave the packed event before I could present them in person, I shared these remarks with the committee. From them …

The first few months of divided government have further polarized a polarized state, and instead of lawmakers working to unite us, we get the opposite. I fear the budget process will be another example of that.

But I have hope.

I have hope that you, the Joint Finance Committee, your colleagues and the governor will ultimately put their partisan differences aside starting with the budget process … coming together around common sense ideas that move Wisconsin forward and improve the lives of the people who live here – the millions who call our cities, villages and towns home.

I represent 21,000 of those people. And I stand before you today asking for your help in making our jobs a little easier, for your help in making sure we can continue to deliver our services in the manner and at the level our residents have come to expect of us.

Police, fire, paramedics, public health, our library and senior center, garbage pickup, and, yes, snowplowing – even on an April day like this – we deliver these on the front lines of government every day. We are the government people see most often, and what they rely on most.

Levy limits make that job increasingly difficult.

You will hear a lot of suggestions today and throughout these hearings, so I will make mine short and sweet: Deliver common-sense levy limit reform in this budget.

Keep alive the proposals Governor Evers has put forth, especially the one to allow communities to increase their levy from the prior year by 2% or by net new construction, whichever is greater. That small change alone would impact millions of residents of this state for the better, as it will allow us to more adequately fund the services they need and use every day or week.

Here is South Milwaukee’s story, in summary …

For 11 straight years, our “net new construction” figure – used to calculate how much we can increase our base levy, our largest source of revenue – has measured less than 1%. For 2019, it was 0.3%, meaning we were only able to increase our levy by approximately $22,000. 

$22,000. On a $19 million budget. And it was worse in previous years.

This is not sustainable. Costs go up, and we’re not allowed to reflect that in our budgets because the state has hamstrung us on revenue. And what if we want to give our people a raise, or if we want to add services? What do we do then?

I’ll tell you one thing we can’t do: Cut fat. We did that long ago. Cuts now are cuts to people, and services. The days of Cadillac benefits are long gone too. We certainly seek ways to do things better through efficiencies and partnerships, but those only go so far.

South Milwaukee went to referendum in 2017, to ensure we can adequately fund our paramedic  program and add two new police officers. It passed 2-to-1. While that allowed us to increase our levy and helped solve that problem, this is no way to fund a government. “One-off” solutions like this don’t solve the problem.

You can help solve the problem, with levy limit reform.

And don’t do it for us. Do it for the hundreds of communities like us across the state, big and small, blue and red, urban and rural, rich and poor, in every legislative district, including yours.

There’s a lot of data here, but I’ll offer this point from the Wisconsin Policy Forum: “During 2012-16, only 62 of nearly 600 cities and villages averaged new construction rates of 2% per year or more, while 186 averaged 0.5% or less.”

186 at 0.5% or less. And for many like us, this has been the case for a decade. We are not alone in doing more with less, literally.

Please fix this in the next state budget.

I’m not asking for more shared revenue or other state aids, although there is a strong case for that as well. Others will make that case. Today, I’m simply asking you to give us the tools and funding flexibility we need to do our jobs at the local level.

Enact common sense levy limit reform and, in doing so, make a stand for local government and for local control — and for the residents we serve, your constituents.

11 Comments

Filed under South Milwaukee

11 responses to “‘Deliver Common-Sense Levy Limit Reform in This Budget’: My Remarks to the Joint Finance Committee

  1. Melanie

    Do “tools” mean the ability to raise taxes again?

  2. Connie Mahsem

    Well said. I hope they listen to your comments.

  3. Bobo

    Eliminating Levy Limits will allow people like our mayor to throw money at a downtown that is HOPELESS as far as revival .
    Cudahy finally realized this and tore down most of downtown and started building attractive housing which will provide a more stable tax base.
    What happened to the micro brewery ??
    Why all the empty store fronts downtown ??

  4. Rick

    THANK GOD the Republicans hold the majority and they will hold the line on spending! Most of Ever’s budget is to make State Government larger.

  5. Mark

    Erik, I agree with you 100%. Keep up the good work. I appreciate the fact that you understand the big picture and can explain reality in common sense terms.

  6. Pug

    Again, we are not a piggy bank. Where do we, the people come up with the extra money? We learn to budget and live within our means. You have been throwing money at the downtown of this city since you’ve been elected. Countless “consultants” and nothing but wasted money. Please stop raising fees and taxes. I personally have no more to waste.

  7. Brian Genduso

    Eric,
    I agree with your comments and hope that our state lawmakers will take action on them.

    In response to the other comments here, I have to say that I don’t feel as though our city is throwing money at hopeless projects. Yes, there are certainly line items that I don’t agree with, but on the whole I see a responsible, proactive approach to making this city a better place to live.

    I am not opposed to raising taxes. Actually, I’m somewhat suspicious that they haven’t been raised much, at least for me. When I look back a dozen years to my 2007 taxes, they were $3428. In 2018 they were $3498, a difference of $70. In fact, due to credits, my net tax is actually lower now than in 2007. That’s incredible.

    Not everything is so rosy, of course, including the recent water service increases, which I think are way out of line (but in the control of the PSC). However, what I’m seeing from what the city can control looks fair and well thought out. So if anything needs to be said to our city workers who try to provide great services at reasonable costs, it’s well done and thank you!

    • Pug

      PSC approval is required before utilities can change rates. Therefore, the city of South Milwaukee Water Department asked to raise the water rates, 41% on average, to cover the construction of our underground clearwells. This isn’t the PCS telling SM to raise rates.
      This is mismanagement from city leaders plain and simple. To say otherwise is disingenuous. To add insult to injury, they’ve known about this for 11 years. I’m quite fed up with the whole characterization of this fiasco. Let’s be honest here, please. It “is” the city’s Water Department raising the water rates, not the PSC. The PSC only grants utilities permission to screw us over.
      About the levy limits being raised. This is also an extremely foolish idea. Can you imagine what our taxes would be like in this town if they were allowed to raise them whenever they mismanaged their budgets? We really have no way to stop this insanity. There is literally no accountability for department heads in this town. It will be more of the same in perpetuity unless we get some aldermen who aren’t simply “yes” men or the administration.
      Rant over.

    • Brian Genduso

      I would like to clarify my previous numbers. I had written the response relatively quickly and forgot to separate out the city taxes from overall property taxes, which may have been misleading. My apologies. The numbers above are total property taxes, which of course include state, county, MATC, etc. My South Milwaukee City taxes have been raised by about $100 total from 2006-2018, an increase of about 8%. That is still, in my opinion, an impressively low number. Thanks.

  8. SM Guy

    If my roof has a hole in it, it is important that I fix it, both for my own benefit and the rules of the various governments. Therefore, knowing that stuff happens, I plan for those things. If I went to my boss and said that I need a raise because my I need to replace my roof, he would just laugh at me. However, that is exactly the plan that the city has. We need a a new _____, let’s get a raise.

    Now, if I were the state government, I would give these greedy cities exactly what they are asking for: local control. You don’t want caps? OK, all caps are now removed. You can now raise rates however you want. In fact, you think that will help you? Great. It will help us in the state government as well. Specifically, it will help the state government because as soon as the caps disappear, all free state money should also disappear. Local control is local control.

  9. Frank

    I do not think Levy Limits are the real issue. The real issue is redevelopment of aging communities with very little open land. Cudahy, St Francis and South Milwaukee are these type of communities. It requires a plan which is to me much more difficult then you expect. You need out of the box solutions for what to build or update and how to finance it.You then have to sell these out of the box solutions. That becomes difficult, because an out of box solutions generally have not been tried before. Thus, critics will say it is experimental and or a fantasy.

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