Office of the County Board Chairman
Date: September 22, 2004
To: Senator Ron Brown and Members of the State-Local
Government Relations Panel
From: County Board Chairman Merlin Gentz
Ref: Public Hearing on Tax Burdens
Thank you for asking for input from local government units such
as Calumet County. As you well know, Wisconsin opted back
in 1848 for the County Supervisor form of government. It also
delegated counties to be the administrative arm of state
government. The idea behind this structure was that taxes
would be collected on a statewide basis where there would be
the greatest opportunity for equalization, while services would
be delivered at the closest level to the people.
A century and a half later, we find the county property taxes
having to support an increasing share of the cost of programs or
services explicitly required or authorized by state statute. A
more detailed analysis of this trend has already been provided to
you by Mark O’Connell, Executive Director of the Wisconsin
Counties Association, in his testimony to you on August 31,
2004. It is imperative that a close relationship exist between
State and local governments, as together, we might find ways to
control costs and reduce the tax burden on individuals, families
and businesses. It is a common goal shared by a vast majority of
state and local elected officials.
The relationship between the state legislature and local
government has been strained and tested over the past couple of
years. There is a growing feeling on the local level, that the
state legislature has been insensitive to our local issues and
challenges and has exhibited reluctance in allowing us to be a
working partner. The discussions surrounding TABOR and the
recent attempt to enact hastily conceived, last minute legislation,
has severely weakened our relationship and created distrust.
Let me turn my attention to more positive and constructive
thought regarding how, together, we might address the tax
burden in Wisconsin. The state legislature has the power to set
requirements regarding levy limits for local municipalities. You
did that in 1992. I am proud how Calumet County has observed
those budgetary requirements since their enactment. We are at
85% of our taxing authority and have a reserve fund of about
18% of our operating budget. Last year, the legislature passed
“Freeze Legislation” which was vetoed by the Governor. In
Calumet County, I as County Board Chairman, met with the
Mayors of our cities, the Presidents of our Villages and the
Town Chairmen and we pledged that we would make every
effort to observe the provisions of the “Freeze Legislation”. We
did very well when you compare our actual tax levies against the
allowable levies under the freeze. Here’s how we are doing.
Actual Municipal or Est. Allowable
County Tax Levy Tax Levy
Calumet County $10,251,309 $10,357,570
Cities 39,082,591 39,893,942
Towns 2,851,319 2,846,793
Villages 972,250 954,596
Totals for Cal. Co $53,157,469 $54,052,901
We did a pretty admirable job of staying beneath what would
have been allowable under the “freeze” criteria. Please involve
us in the decision making process. We have much to contribute
to the process. We have a great deal of experience as we have
been involved in bringing the State programs to our constituents.
I should also mention that it appears the county budget for 2005
will see a reduction in tax rate of about $.20 per thousand of
There are a number of suggestions I have regarding how we
might collectively control costs and reduce the tax burden.
1. The legislature should exercise its responsibility and exert its
power of establishing budgetary requirements. Just talk to us
at the local level, listen and understand our issues and
let us partner with you before you make your
decisions. Include recognition of changes in population,
equalized valuation and consumer price index. Don’t
change the State Constitution but, rather exercise the
responsibility and power the State Legislature already
has to do this.
2. Encourage local governments to cooperate and collaborate
on issues surrounding services provided to its citizens.
Much is already happening and many agreements are
already in place. In fact, in Calumet County this has
assisted us in holding the line on expenditures and has
helped us in meeting the budgetary requirements you
have established for us. I would like to cite several
examples of agreements of such partnerships which
Calumet County is involved in.
Outagamie, Calumet, Winnebago and Brown counties
have successfully implemented a law enforcement
communications system, called Fox Comm. This has
provided the four counties with a uniform and sophisticated
system and has provided us with the opportunity to
leverage our resources to develop and implement a system
which would not have been financially feasible on an
individual basis. In the process, we have saved several
hundred thousand dollars.
Calumet, Winnebago and Outagamie counties, and a good
number of their Fox Valley regional communities, are
looking at the wisdom of developing an area wide
industrial park, hoping to attract a large industry that would
provide a quantity of quality jobs. We are appreciative of
the Department of Commerce participation with a grant of
$75,000 to help do the study.
Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties have formed
An Ad Hoc committee to look at cooperation and
collaboration in regard to operation of their Highway
Departments, Emergency Management Government and
For the past four years, I as County Board Chair, the
Mayors of our cities, the Presidents of our villages and the
Chairs of our Townships, have met on a quarterly basis to
discuss issues, challenges and measures which might be
taken to address them. As a result, we have renewed our
trust in one another and this has led to numerous
cooperative arrangements. We have an active collaborative
economic development effort and our County is on the
move. We are the second fastest growing County in
Wisconsin, by percentage of population growth, and we
led the State last year in percentage growth of revenues
from tourism with 14% increase. This is a credit to very
capable and dedicated staff and volunteers from across the
County. All of this begins with leadership which is
committed to cooperation and collaboration. We must all
be willing to listen and understand the issues and
challenges across, in our case, the county, and must be
willing to assist our neighbors.
3. It would be recommended that the State Legislature develop
incentives which would encourage municipalities
to enter into cooperative and collaborative agreements
with their neighbors.
I believe we, at the local level, have established a positive track
record of embracing cooperative agreements with our neighbors
which has allowed us to become more efficient and productive.
We would ask to be an equal, working partner with you as you
prepare yourselves for making the decisions necessary to
exercise your responsibilities and authority, which will affect us
directly at the local level. We must end the punitive rhetoric
which has surrounded the discussions regarding spending
freezes and proposed TABOR legislation.
Wisconsin is a great State- working together, we will be able to
make it even better.
Again, thank you for asking for my input as a local leader.