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 We are, however, spending thousands of dollars each year on maintenance to keep that out-of-date equipment working.”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.