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Grant County Economic Development Corp sees hope for more state aid
Organization calls for change
Grant County

GRANT COUNTY - Pity the fella who writes a Broadway musical about Wisconsin’s municipal governments: Everybody here is singing the same tune—and it’s a depressing dirge about rising costs and shrinking revenue.

But wait! There might be a cheerful tune coming in the third act.

Wisconsin’s governor and legislature begin budget talks this month, with a sales-tax war-chest of over $6 billion—and lobbyists for local government have a seat at the table.

“I know the League of Wisconsin Municipalities has been meeting with all the key players, and from what I’ve heard, they’ve been decent conversations,” Adam Ruechel told a crowded room at last week’s Grant County Economic Development Corporation board meeting, which was held in Boscobel. “The good news is at least both sides admit there is a problem.”

Ruechel was City Manager for the City of Platteville from 2020 to 2023. He recently began a new job as a Public Finance Specialist with Robert W. Baird, an international financial services company with its headquarters in Wisconsin.

Platteville case study

Ruechel was the keynote speaker to the board, which represents a couple dozen communities and organizations, all committed to improving the economic growth of the county.

In his address, he used Platteville as a case study in how property taxes and state revenues have remained flat for years, while costs have continued to rise.

It’s a civics lesson that readers of the Dial should know well by now: a decade ago, Wisconsin’s legislature put limits on how much local municipalities could raise taxes for operating costs. The state applies a formula that’s based on how many new homes or businesses are built in a taxing jurisdiction.

In 2022, according to Ruechel, that added up to an average one-percent increase statewide. Platteville fared even worse, netting only a .42 increase—which totaled $18,000. It doesn’t take a math whiz to tell that, even under normal inflation, .42 won’t cut it.

The other primary source of municipal funding is “shared revenue,” which redistributes the Wisconsin sales tax, among other revenues, from Madison to local municipalities. Overall, shared revenue actually declined in the past decade. A graph of shared revenue for the City of Platteville is a literal flat-line: Shared revenues stalled out in 2012 at $2.47 million and haven’t budged since.

What to do?

If nothing else changes, local governments have basically two choices, according to Ruechel: Raise taxes or cut spending.

“Continuing to increase taxes to cover the shortfall, as we all know, eventually you’re going to hit a tipping point where taxpayers say, ‘We can’t do that.’”

When that tipping point might come is anyone’s guess. Boscobel’s school district is asking taxpayers this year to approve a referendum to consolidate the schools; City Hall is considering repeating the question in 2024 for public safety and basic services. With a smaller, more elderly home-owning population, taxing jurisdictions like Boscobel’s struggle even harder to make the pitch for higher taxes.

“There were 18 municipalities in the state that went to referendum specifically for police or fire shops,” Ruechel said. “The majority of those did pass. But as we all know, the more and more municipalities that do that, the less and less likely it’s going to be for referendums to pass.”

The alternative, according to Ruechel, is reduce services.

“Typically you’re going to cut amenities first. That’s reality. Parks, library, museum, and any type of other special kinds of things that your municipality has. Then you look at reductions to services such as garbage, recycling, street planning. Worst case scenario is you have to consider staff reductions in order to accommodate the budget shortfall.”

Shrinking rural towns

Even as inflation cools off, it’s clear that an annual one-percent increase in revenue will eventually end in cuts to services and staff.

That’s why Ruechel, and the members of the Economic Development Board, hope to bend the ear of legislators to reshape the funding formulas in a way that helps rural communities. That means communicating these problems both to legislators and to citizens, as Madison begins budget negotiations here.

The process begins with a proposal from democratic Governor Tony Evers in February, and negotiations with the republican legislature will continue until June or July, when the budget cycle begins.

“We have a short window here. Everybody is on the same page that they know they need to do something, the key is how to get them to make sure that it’s what is the best option that helps municipalities,” Ruechel said.

Boscobel hosts

The monthly meeting rotates among Grant County municipalities, and it was Boscobel’s turn in January.

Boscobel City Administrator Patricia Smith greeted the assembled representatives and announced some new economic growth in the city: The former Udder Brothers building, she said, will be occupied by a Mexican grocery store. (Udder Brothers completed its move to the old Dairy Queen building.) A new boutique selling a variety of goods is opening up in the former Next Gen Flooring building on Wisconsin Avenue. At the new Next Gen building, the former World of Variety, the owner is expanding into an “open mall concept,” according to Smith, beginning with a shoe outlet and Carhart clothing store.

Old 61 Diner catered the meal with a menu of beef tips over noodles, mashed potatoes and gravy, broasted chicken, and side dishes.