Budgeting in Eden is No Paradise

Eden

Imagine being faced with a $460,000 tab for street repairs knowing your tax levy will total just $34,000? Welcome to budgeting in the Village of Eden.

Wisconsin’s small villages are often caught in this financial trap, with levy limits on one side and old infrastructure on the other. Communities that for years prided themselves on keeping property taxes low now find that when it’s time to replace main street or a sewer main, the levy limit law is a barrier. The only way around the barrier is to borrow money; effectively putting today’s problems in the laps of tomorrow’s residents.

The Village of Eden is a small community just Southeast of Fond du Lac with a population of around 900. According to Census bureau estimates, it’s growing, which is unusual for a small village in rural Wisconsin. In fact, the village’s slogan is “A place to grow.” Unfortunately, that “growth” doesn’t extend to the village budget. Under Wisconsin levy limits, Eden will see an allowable levy increase in 2019 of zero. According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, Eden’s “net new construction” growth in 2018 was a negative 0.26-percent, meaning it would not be allowed to increase its tax levy in 2019. The village will rely on borrowing and a small wheel tax for any funding increases. Efforts to attract grants have failed, due in significant part to the village’s small population.

Unfortunately for Eden, costs will not remain at zero. The state is rebuilding Highway 45 and village must pay $460,000 for its share of the work (Highway 45 is one of Eden’s main streets). In addition, for the past two years, Eden has been forced to borrow money to operate. The village has over $1.7 million in outstanding debt and will be required to pay for the replacement of a seventy-year-old water main. There is no money to pay for new hiring or other costs. The village’s sole computer was ten years old before it finally acted up once too often and had to be replaced.

Eden is a typical small Wisconsin community. It serves an area that is primarily agricultural, with some suburban influences owing to the short 20-minute drive to Fond du Lac or 30-minute drive to West Bend. You can rent the village park for a family reunion and the village president has been known to shovel sidewalks in the winter when needed. It embodies the values that Wisconsin points to with pride: small town, strong work ethic, conservative when it comes to spending. But there are limits.

In a report submitted to the League and posted on our website, the village pleads with state policy makers to, “PLEASE FIND A WAY TO HELP THE SMALL COMMUNITIES THAT HAVE BEEN TRYING TO KEEP TAXES LOW.”

Columbus makes the levy limit case

The City of Columbus is a typical Wisconsin community. It’s an attractive, small-but-not-too-small city of 5,000 people straddling the Columbia-Dodge county line. They have an interesting downtown, a great library, an Amtrak station, the Christopher Columbus Museum, an aquatic center and a river (the Crawfish). They’re also being strangled slowly by state-imposed levy limits.

In 2018, the state granted Columbus permission to increase its levy by the percentage of “net new construction” that took place the year before. In this case, the allowable increase was 1.861 percent (inflation in 2018 was 2.44%). That translates into an additional $45,000 in spending authority for the City’s $4 million budget. Put another way, it’s almost enough to pay just about half of the increased health insurance premium for city staff and nothing more. And 2018 was a typical year.

Columbus, like most Wisconsin cities, villages and towns, has not seen a levy increase equal to inflation in over six years. As a result, the city has been slowly but surely reducing its long-term maintenance and services to residents. The changes have been subtle, but they’re starting to show.

“We are running our Public Works Department with equipment we purchased in the 1990’s,” says Kim Manley, the City’s Director of Finance and Treasurer. “It should be replaced, but there’s just no budget for that. We are, however, spending thousands of dollars each year on maintenance to keep that out-of-date equipment working.”

The city’s street repair budget is almost non-existent, and the roof over the Senior Center should have been replaced years ago. As for personnel, the city hasn’t been able to offer meaningful raises to its employees for years, and all of its salary ranges are lagging behind the already-competitive labor market.

“In the real world, we should be setting aside a little money each year so that larger purchases or projects can be funded, or at least partially funded without the city going deeper into debt. But with levy limits, I can’t set aside any dollars for needed new police squad cars, the roof or that old equipment. We scrimp and save every penny.”

Manley told us that the problem is building on itself. “Every year we have to say we can’t afford to do something or maintain something – then another year goes by and we are still trying to maintain the core services at our minimum levels. Our debt continues to grow and it’s concerning to me as a Finance Director to know that we’re putting our community in this type of situation.”

In the Governor’s proposed budget, cities, villages, towns and counties would be able to come closer to keeping up with inflation. The budget proposes restoring a 2% “floor” for property tax levies.  The League supports that change for the sake of cities like Columbus.

You can read more stories about the many communities in Wisconsin that are in Columbus’s shoes (or worse) on our web site https://www.lwm-info.org/1552/Levy-Limits-Time-for-a-Change.

#LWM2018 Comes to an End

Well that is a wrap. The 2018 League conference has come and gone. We wrapped up the day with some breakout sessions and we got to hear for the keynote speaker, Jason Kotecki. Jason’s inspired us to step out of our comfort zone and try new things. As local leader we need to enact change. However, that is easier said than done. That is why we need to tinker around when we have an idea, even if it just means starting small. Not all innovative changes have to be Earth-shattering. He also reminded us to not let the “adultitis” set in. In life we do not have to be serious and uptight all the time. If we take ourselves too seriously all the time, then we might miss out on a lot of opportunities in life. If we have a similar mentality when we are governing our municipalities and say things such as “we can’t do that, that’s too impossible,” then we are setting up ourselves to possibly passing up an opportunity. The saying that comes to my mind is, “you’ll never know until you try.”

After the keynote speaker, we had the Just Fix It, Turn Out for Transportation Luncheon. Thanks to the Transportation Development Association for allowing us to have this space to discuss what needs to be done to solve the State’s transportation funding challenges. It was great to hear from current assembly representatives when they reiterated that solving the transportation issues is a not a partisan issue. So, we will have to see what is in store for the future state budget after the November elections. Hopefully, the outcome will have a positive impact on our local communities.

I have done a lot of self-reflection over the past few days. I have been rejuvenated with new energy and I have a lot of new ideas that I want to share with my fellow council members and city staff. I hope that the ideas that I gained throughout the conference will make Sheboygan a better place. All of us that have a passion for our communities are making Wisconsin a better place, because we all share a common vision to move our communities forward.

I want to give Jerry Deschane a shot out and thank him for letting me take over his blog for the week. Also, I want to thank the League staff and all their hard work to make this conference a success.

I hope that you enjoyed this conference as much as I did. I know that next year will be just as great. We will see you in Green Bay in 2019.

-Ryan Sorenson, Sheboygan City Council

Day 2 of #LWM2018 Finishes Strong

I was up bright and early for the second day of the conference with many others for the WEA Trust run and walk. After the morning run and breakfast, it was time for the conference workshops, and meeting more passionate local leaders. This year there was a great number of session that focused on my issues that are impacting our communities all across Wisconsin. It was difficult for me to narrow down the decision for which sessions to choose. Since we are community leaders we have to make difficult decisions. I started off the morning with learning about managing street construction and the impact on local economies. I decided to attend this one because I am a member of the public works committee and we all face challenges with roads back at home. Securing funding for road repairs is difficult enough, but as local leaders it is imperative that we also mitigate the any negative impacts that construction might have local businesses. Columbus and Waunakee had fantastic solutions to ensure that community members were engaged along the entire process during the presentation.

The second session that I attended looked at how small communities can be cool. I wanted to go to this session because having a “cool” community is one important component for retaining and recruiting talent and people. Many communities across Wisconsin are struggling with a brain drain problem. Finding new and creative ways to develop stronger connection with people, and celebrating entrepreneurship are some things that need to be done to grow a community. Dr. Ivan did this session and I was able to draw connections between this session, this talk over lunch, and his session on regionalism. As leaders we need to think about the future and develop creative partnerships that are driven by community members and stakeholders.

During lunch it was great to have Tony Evers swing by and hear what he had to say about his race for Governor. It is vital that after this election, state lawmakers listen to local leaders because we are on the front lines every day and see the direct impact that so many issues have on people. My hope is that in next legislative session that state lawmakers, figure out a sustainable solution for infrastructure and road funding, restore local autonomy, and of course eliminate the dark store loopholes.

Later today, Tammy Bockhorst and I sat down and did a Facebook live chat. Tammy shared her thoughts about how day two went. If you have not seen the video yet, go check it out on the League’s Facebook page. Now I am off to happy hour with other young elected officials.

-Ryan Sorenson, Sheboygan City Council

Day 1 Of #LWM2018 Is Starting Strong

The first day of the conference is underway, my bag of vendor items is packed and I have my #LWM2018 buttons. It is truly something special when so many local elected officials travel from all over the State of Wisconsin to attend a three-day conference that focuses on community improvement. This demonstrates to me that there are so many passionate people out there that believe in their communities and want to make their corner of the world a better place. Today, I chatted with city council members from Racine, Kaukauna, and Menasha, and I felt the connection that they all had for their community’s. You name it, we probably talked about it; roads, housing, lead pipes, and TIDs just to name a few. They all expressed so much excitement for the new knowledge that we would all learn at this event and bring those ideas back home.

I always enjoy talking with the many different vendors and sponsors that take the time out of their busy schedules to come to our conference. I think that this is a vital part of learning what different partnerships that we can cultivate to have a positive impact back home. Many of the vendors that I sparked a conversation with saw on my name tag that I was from Sheboygan, and asked me how I have been enjoying my time on the council. Then we usually crack a joke about my young age. A good handful of vendors even knew some of the city staff from Sheboygan by name. I was very impressed by this, but I was even more proud that our city staff has a positive reputation with our partners. When I am back home in Sheboygan, I am going to relay the message to let them know they are doing a fantastic job.

Now my struggle that I need to figure out is which workshops I am going to attend tomorrow. The decision should not be too difficult, after all it is not getting referred to a committee to be discussed. Also, I hope that you were able to check out my first Facebook live interview with my Mayor, Mike Vandersteen. Look out, if you are lucky, Gail and I might interview you to see how your conference experience is going. See you tomorrow!

-Ryan Sorenson, Sheboygan City Council

Taking Over Jerry’s Blog

Hello My name is Ryan Sorenson. I am alderman on the Sheboygan City Council. I was first elected to the city council in April 2017, and I was only 23 at the time. I am excited to share that this week I will be taking over Jerry’s blog for the annual League of Wisconsin Municipalities Conference. Being a millennial in local elected office, I will be sharing my perspective throughout the conference.

A little bit about myself, I was born and raised in Sheboygan. While attending college at UW-Milwaukee, I was very involved in student government all four years, and was elected student body president. After graduating college, I felt a need to get involved and make a difference in my community. My mom instilled in me while growing up to never sit on the sidelines and complain, but get in the game and make a difference, and so that’s what I did. I challenged and defeated a 10-year incumbent. I knew that our council needed a fresh perspective and some new ideas to help move our city forward.

This year will be my second conference. When I attend the conference last year in Appleton, I had no idea what to expect, but I had an open mind. While at the conference I met many local leaders who were passionate about their communities. I learned so much at the workshops and breakout sessions, and enjoyed all the speakers. My favorite session last year was learning about all the unique and positive ways that planting trees can have on a community. One fun fact that I learned was that planting trees correctly can extend the lifetime of a road before it needs to be repaired. Who knew? With all I experienced at my first conference, I became a more effective and knowledgeable council member. I left the conference in 2017 full of new information and I was excited for my next one. I am looking forward to seeing what is in store for this year’s conference. I know it will be a great one.

If you see me at the conference this year, please stop and say hi. I would be happy to connect and meet you. You can also follow me on twitter @ryansorensonwi

2017_Sorenson

It comes down to welcome

I was in Hurley recently, participating in a conversation about community inclusivity. As the talk unfolded in this Northern city of 1,300, it became clear that there are a variety of definitions of inclusivity. It’s a diamond with many facets. It seems to me, however, that they all relate to the same thing: making “those people” feel welcome. It really doesn’t matter whether “those people” are oldtimers, newcomers, millennials, immigrants, natives, Hispanics, African Americans or Viking fans. Inclusivity is an attitude that this place is a place for everyone. Specifically, it is a place for you. C’mon in; sit down. Have some coffee.

The conversation was led by Eric Giordano and Dave Anderson of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS). WIPPS is in the initial stages of a new project on this topic. The League and the Wisconsin Counties Association are helping to support their work, which will culminate next April in a conference on inclusivity. Think of the Hurley meeting as a “warm-up exercise.”

One thing I noticed right away is that people often tune out of conversations on inclusivity. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand the labels. That’s a fair criticism; the word “inclusivity” sounds like one of those terms you hear tossed around in a UW class on sociology, but never at an American Legion hall in Hurley. What does it mean? Who are we talking about? Why should I care?

The other reason people, particularly current residents of a place, will go blank when this conversation comes up is because it feels like they’re being blamed for something. If you’re asking how my city can be more inclusive, you’re implying that we’re not already inclusive, which, in turn, suggests that I am a bigot of some sort. Most of us, me included, are a mixed bag of goodness and badness. We like being recognized for our goodness and hope that our badness doesn’t show in polite company. It’s embarrassing.

We naturally feel more comfortable among people we know and less so among strangers. Put me in a room full of Packer fans from the Green Bay area and I’m happy as a clam. But put me into a room full of Minnesota Viking fans from St. Paul and I’ll disappear into my clam shell. When I’m called out for not talking to Viking fans, rather than defend myself, I will just move away from the conversation.

Using a football analogy is, I will grant you, a cheap and easy way to skirt very sobering issues of race, poverty, immigration, religion and age. I’m not doing it to trivialize the need for an honest discussion about these topics; I’m doing it to make the point that there is a simple human concept that applies to all of them. That concept is welcome. People can sense when they’re welcome. They can sense when they’re not. It doesn’t take long for a stranger to pick up the signals. What signal is your community sending?

I first heard this discussed in my church. My wife and I volunteered to serve on one of those committees, and the topic of gaining and keeping more members came up. After talking about it for weeks, reviewing the literature and searching high and low on the internet, we kept coming back to a single topic: welcome. Did the people who walked into our particular church feel welcome? Were they greeted? Were they asked to participate in this or that committee; maybe bake a pie or judge a talent contest? Did they sense that the people around them were glad they showed up?

If they got the sense of welcome, they were more inclined to come back the next Sunday. If the vibe they picked up was indifferent, maybe they were a little less inclined. If it was hostile or cold, well, you get the picture.

As we move into this new era of minimum population increases, Wisconsin’s communities need to do everything we can to seek out people. As we age, the temptation among many of our retirees will be to move to a warmer (in all senses of the word) climate. Every employer is facing a worker shortage; we need to bring every able-bodied soul into the workforce, regardless of the blemishes that may appear on their rap sheet. We need to open our doors to people who may not look or talk exactly like us. And yes, we need to have an honest discussion about immigration reform. The need to be welcoming is not a “warm fuzzy.” It’s an economic imperative. The community that welcomes will be the community that succeeds.