All over the state, municipalities are struggling to cover the gap left in essential service funding left by the Walker Budget proposals. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel on April 7 http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/119428294.html , large municipalities in the state face a huge shortfall in cash due to cuts in shared revenues. The Governor’s budget adjustments only cover 61% of the shortfall, leaving a gap of almost $20 million – just in the state’s largest cities. This leaves cities and counties in a very difficult position of cutting services in a difficult economic climate. To make the situation worse, the Walker budget would eliminate the ability of municipal governments to levy property tax increases – one of their few means of generating revenue. The effects in these larger population centers has been given a great deal of publicity – what about areas of smaller population in rural Wisconsin?
Jackson County in Northwest Wisconsin http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/55/55053.html is home to just under 20,000 people. The county is 87.5% non- Hispanic White, 6.3% Native American. 79% of adults over 25 have high school diplomas, while only 11.3% hold a Bachelor’s degree. While almost 75% are homeowners (68% statewide), the median home value is $76,800, while median personal income is $17,604 ($21,271 state). Over 12% live below the poverty level, 2% over the state median. Most of the land East of I94 is bog, resulting in a population density of only 19.4 persons per square mile (98.8 state). The county relies heavily on state shared revenue for services, having a low property tax base. Based on GovernorWalker’s proposed 2011-2013 budget, the county stands to lose $278,000 in shared revenue. State budget cuts do not come close to filling the gap (as in larger municipalities). In a less populated rural area with less existing infrastructure and population base, even more people in need of current services are put at risk.
First reported in the LaCrosse Tribune: http://lacrossetribune.com/jacksoncochronicle/news/local/article_543c1186-6617-11e0-8a48-001cc4c002e0.html on April 13. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Lister and District Attorney Gerald Fox have presented a plan to the County Executive and Finance Committee which would help fill that revenue gap – and it would be unprecedented in Wisconsin. Under their plan, Jackson County would administer and prosecute most citations and forfeitures under county statutes – keeping the citation revenue in the county. When I spoke to District Attorney Gerald Fox on April 19, he indicated the county sends about $1 million per year in fines and court costs to the state. Only a small percentage of the total stays in the county, in fact, if a state fine or forfeiture is involved (as in a State Patrol citation) all revenue from that fine reverts to the state. A very lopsided transaction, when you consider the only state – paid costs are the salaries of the DA and Asst. DA, half salary of a victim witness coordinator, one Circuit Court Judge, one Court Reporter, and a computer work station. The county pays all other staff salaries and expenses out of its own coffers. The Lister/Fox plan would have the DA prosecute as many offenses under county statutes as possible in Judge Lister’s court with the fines paid remaining in Jackson county to help fill the state funding gap. Early estimates net the county a little over $100,000 in highway citations alone – a significant piece of the deficit.
In Black River Falls, the county seat, Mayor Ron Danielson struggles with potential cuts to Emergency Services. The already limited city payroll has little room for cuts already, and the largest portion of city payroll is dedicated to Emergency Services. Wisconsin Statute prohibits cities from cutting Emergency Services below 2009 levels; but under AB14, currently in committee http://madison.mygov365.com/legislation/view/id/4d4d14c949e51bae70a20900/tab/versions/ , that statute would be rescinded. If this bill passes, municipalities would be allowed to make cuts in Emergency Services to help make up their budget shortfalls. In small cities all over Wisconsin like Black River Falls with very limited revenue sources, there may be little choice – even with the creative solution of Judge Lister and DA Fox.
In light of recent news disclosing pending introduction of Municipal Governance reform legislation (see previous blogs), there could be serious and very intended consequences for rural municipalities like Jackson County. Even DA Fox expressed concern that under the current legislative climate, the county may see significant push back on such self-governing decisions. Should a Municipal Governance Reform bill pass as reported, what would the “stress tests” and “transparent fiscal management” language of those bills mean to the people of Jackson County? I submit a scenario that is not a great leap under the current climate of corporate – sponsored legislation. The state could deem Jackson County to be unsound, citing “questionable” methods in balancing their budget (like the Fox/Lister plan) – not to mention Walker not liking county money staying in the county. Municipalities would cut Emergency Services and Social Services as their shared revenue dwindles, creating more at-risk people overwhelming an already taxed system. It is not a stretch to see the state taking authority to “save” the county by systemically privatizing all non-emergency services. Streets, parks, sanitation, even administration could be privatized under appropriate legislation using a fiscal “stress test” as justification. The city/county function would revert to basic public safety, with other services being sold to the highest bidder (or no bidder); creating a service base with no local or legislative accountability. As Mayor Danielson pointed out, there is a lot of money in privatizing those “non-essential” services like parks and sanitation. The state could rationalize all municipal funds going to shore up “public safety”, with the rest being privatized under a new state agency answering only to the Governor (just like the new charter school bill). I challenge anyone from the GOP to disprove such a scenario – or deny the possibility on record.
This is the alarm sounding. The confirmed existence of lobbyist draft legislation “reforming” municipal government needs to be closely monitored, debated, and challenged. The potential looting of resources and money in areas similar to Jackson County, to be given away to corporate interests – with no public/legislative oversight cannot be allowed in Wisconsin. In a progressive state with open elections, honest government, and participative democracy, there is no need for such draconian measures. We need to take that back from Scott Walker and every corporate interest involved in this consolidation of power and influence (not to mention money). Take my word for it, this is just the beginning. Stay vigilant, stay strong, and keep on, Wisconsin.