Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Referendums Fund Emergency Services

23 local referendums in November requested funding for police, fire, parks and more.

By - Nov 28th, 2022 12:39 pm
Police. Photo by Highway Patrol Images / CC BY (

Police. Photo by Highway Patrol Images / CC BY (

Wisconsin’s smallest municipalities started it in 2006.

The Town of Westin (population 15,700) in Marathon County said it needed $226,600 to fund a third EMS shift and firefighters. DePere (population 25,300) in Brown County wanted $343,700 to offset special assessments that had paid for street maintenance and repairs.

Officials in those communities were the first to sound this alarm: New state-imposed limits on property tax levies threaten local services, so please pass special referendums – and, yes, raise your property taxes – to maintain and expand these critical programs.

Two other local referendums passed in 2006. Another Brown County community, the Village of Bellevue (population 16,100), got approval for about $300,000. In Fond du Lac County’s Town of Friendship (population 650), voters approved about $14,000 more.

Researchers at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs found that 38 of 108 municipal referendums passed between 2006 and 2018 — a 35% approval rate.

Just like school district administrators, officials who run Wisconsin’s towns, villages, cities and counties are increasingly asking voters to approve – and getting permission – to boost spending for local services.

Municipal officials say they have no choice, for two reasons. State laws that control their future tax levies are too tight, especially when some communities only saw 1% increases in annual property values. And, state revenue-sharing payments to local governments haven’t increased in years, which amounts to a cut due to inflation.

“Public safety is a top priority in Wisconsin, and our local communities cannot rely on temporary Band-Aids and referendums to fund critical local services any longer,” Jerry Deschane, Executive Director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities said. “Municipalities are turning to the ballot for short-term relief due to long-term, flatlining state support for public safety services.”

Statewide, 23 municipalities put referendums before voters on Nov. 8. Curt Witynski, deputy director of the League, ticked off these statistics on the referendums:

-Eighteen of those 23 municipal, town, and county referendums – or 78% – passed.

-Of those, 21 of the 23 referendums asked for more spending on public safety – for local police and fire protection, emergency medical services (EMS), or all three.

-Cities that passed referendum included Eau Claire, requesting $1.44 million for additional police, fire, and EMS personnel; Chippewa Falls, $1.22 million; Middleton, $770,000 for additional police, parks, and communications professionals, and Whitewater, $1.1 million to hire full-time professional fire and EMS workers.

The largest municipal referendum approved by voters came in August, when Kenosha got permission to exceed state tax limits by $2.5 million each year.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature must find an alternative to the “unsustainable” trend of referendums to pay for local emergency services, Deschane said.

There is no consensus among Republican legislators on help for local governments. At a WisPolitics event last week, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu floated the idea of attaching local aid to another revenue source like the sales tax. Milwaukee County officials want authority to levy a countywide 1% sales tax.

“The approach Milwaukee city and county are taking is a long-term solution,” Witynski said. “Other communities are using the one tool currently available under the existing system – asking the voters to approve more property taxes on themselves.”

But, at the WisPolitics event, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said “not every local government is created equal.”

Asked about giving local governments a 1% statewide sales tax – which could generate about $1.4 billion a year – Vos said there can’t be “revenue without reform,” since some counties have been “awful in how they manage money.”

Campaigning for re-election, Evers promised to include a 4% annual increase in state shared-revenue aid to local governments in the two-year budget he will give lawmakers.

But 4% increases would only be a “short term” solution, Witynski said. “Shared revenue has been cut for cities, villages and towns by $94 million over the last 20 years,” Witynski explained. “None of those cuts have been restored; 4% would not get us back to where we were in 2003.”

Jason Stein, research director for the non-profit Wisconsin Policy Forum, said, “Not all communities receive large shared revenue payments to start with – Milwaukee, for instance, has a sizable payment and Madison a much smaller one.”

“So,” Stein added, “because some communities receive only a small payment, a 4% increase … wouldn’t necessarily reduce the current level of desire for those communities to go to referendum.”

The city that has passed the most referendums? DePere, in Republican-leaning Brown County, with four.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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One thought on “The State of Politics: Referendums Fund Emergency Services”

  1. blurondo says:

    Mr. Walters’ piece confirms that the Wisconsin Legislature is focused only on power. The common good is totally foreign to them.

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