Tax analysis, population stats prompt predictions

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Dave Bretl | January 20, 2014

Whenever I run across a newspaper article on local government or see some interesting statistic, I usually clip it out and throw it in a file folder labeled “Column Ideas.” When writer's block sets in, which can be a weekly occurrence, I grab the folder and choose a topic. Unlike grocery stores that move the older cartons of milk to the front of the display, I pick and choose among the items in my folder.

By the end of the year, two different kinds of topics typically remain in the folder: those that are interesting but don't merit an entire column and those that could be the subject of an entire book. The problem with the first topic is self-explanatory; there just isn't enough to write about. The problem with substantive topics is they often require additional research and can be hard to explain in the 850 words, or so, that I am limited to. In any case, I usually try to empty the folder out in a year-end column. I am a little tardy this year, but I need to clean the slate for 2014. The two news stories that were left in the folder may be a few months old, but the topics still haven't reached their expiration dates.

The first story in my file was a comparison of property tax levies among the state's 72 counties compiled by the Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance. According to data listed on the WTA's webpage, seven counties, including Walworth, lowered their tax levies in 2013. The remaining 65 counties increased levies from a fraction of 1 percent to 16.8 percent. Leading the levy-cutting pack was Winnebago County. Supervisors there cut taxes by 3.7 percent. On the other end of the spectrum was Monroe County, which raised its levy by a whopping 16.8 percent. Given relatively strict state levy caps, I'm not exactly sure what happened there. Several categories of expenses are excluded from the limit, including debt service payments for bonds authorized after 2005. Borrowing for that county's new $25 million justice center likely figured into the tax levy spike. Excluding Monroe County, levy changes ranged from -3.7 percent to 6.6 percent in the remaining 71 counties.

The second story that caught my attention dealt with population. In October, the state released its 2013 population estimate. Each year, following the national census, the Department of Administration estimates the number of people residing in each town and municipality. I know how the Census Bureau collects its information, but I'm not exactly sure how the state makes its estimates.

According to the DOA, the state's population increased by one-half of 1 percent since 2010. Walworth County actually grew at a slower rate (.3 percent) during the same period, adding an estimated 351 residents. The largest growth, in absolute terms, occurred in the city of Whitewater, which added 530 people. Fifteen of the 29 local jurisdictions located in our county actually experienced population decreases.

I pulled up some old columns on the subject, and the change in population growth in our county has been dramatic. To put things in perspective, during the decade of the 1990s, Walworth County was the fourth fastest-growing county in the state, adding an average of 1,700 new residents each year. Population growth slowed during the next decade but only slightly. From 2000 to 2010, Walworth County placed ninth in terms of population growth, with an average annual increase of slightly more than 1 percent. The latest estimate of one-tenth of 1 percent annual growth means that it will take 10 years for the county's population to grow by the same percentage that it used to grow every year.

I always have found that population growth is a sensitive subject in Walworth County. On one hand, folks appreciate the open spaces and aren't anxious to replicate some of the sprawl and congestion that characterize counties located closer to Chicago or Milwaukee. The slowdown in growth, however, has some serious implications for an economy that was geared to serve it. Planners, too, need to carefully consider the latest data. Designing buildings and roads for rapid growth, as had been conventional wisdom for many years, may no longer make as much sense.

If I were to make some predictions, I would guess that fewer counties will be cutting their tax levies next year. One of the downsides of a levy cap is that it encourages some leaders to “max out” their taxing capacity even if they don't need the money at the time. I also will predict that the county population grew at a little faster rate in 2013 than it did in 2012. While there hasn't been a “run” on our zoning office for permits to build new homes, there is some anecdotal evidence that housing is picking up, including an increase in the number of documents filed with our register of deeds.

I will write about these topics again next year, assuming my predictions come true. If, on the other hand, I pick two or three different topics out of next year's “folder cleaning column,” you'll know what happened.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit

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