Counties balk at state orders without funds

Pressure may be building for Wisconsin to revisit the longstanding relationship between counties and 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 ten sion between the two sides in recent decades as state aids have stagnated while program mandates have increased and state-imposed propert y tax limits have tightened.

WISTAX is a nonpartisan, nonprofit or ganization 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 p ay for programs.”

The report highlights the 72 counties’ role in delivering cradleto grave services for state government.

Major county duties include providing human services, such as care for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities, men tal health, or substance abuse needs (40% of total spending); prote cting 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 th em more reliant on property taxes to pay for services, many of the m 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 relat ionship as similar to that of a parent and a child, he noted.

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