Wisconsin’s 1,255 town governments are more numerous than any other type of government in the state and serve close to one-third of the state’s 5.7 million residents.
But they often go unnoticed, even though the town meeting is one of the few remaining examples of direct democracy in the U.S. Towns also tend to provide fewer services than other municipalities and, as a result, town finances differ from those of cities and villages.
A new report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX), “How Do Towns Measure Up: A Closer Look At Town Finance” takes a closer look at oft-ignored Wisconsin towns.
Another unusual feature of towns is the limited services they provide and fund. Towns spent $790.6 million from general funds in 2013, or $479 per capita. Capital expenditures (e.g. building projects) of $80 million and debt service ($67 million) aside, that left $643.5 million, or $390 per capita, to pay for basic services. By comparison, villages spent $1,204 in general funds in 2013, or $715 when capital and debt service expenditures were excluded. Cities spent the most, at $1,604 per capita; $979 without capital and debt.
A significant reason for the difference between the finances of towns and other types of municipalities is that most towns do not have police or fire departments. Most rely on the county sheriff’s office for police services. For fire protection, some are part of joint departments with neighboring towns, villages, or cities, while others contract with nearby departments. Towns spent $80 per capita on public safety, which includes law enforcement, fire protection, and ambulance services. By comparison, villages ($299) and cities ($495) spent significantly more.
Public works expenditures ($222 per capita) accounted for nearly half of all town spending, more than any other category. Villages ($175) and cities ($197) spent less on public works than towns, and the category represented a much smaller portion of total spending (14.6% and 12.3%, respectively).
Towns spent another $72 per person on general government operations, and $10 per capita on culture, recreation and education. Villages ($114 and $72) and cities ($105 and $106) spent significantly more in both categories.
Town expenditures vary by population, tending to be higher in more populous places. In total dollars, towns with fewer than 500 residents spent an average of $270,600 in 2013 while towns with over 5,000 residents spent an average of $4.5 million. That said, small towns (under 500) tend to spend the most per capita.
On the other side of the ledger, general fund revenues (other than proceeds from bond issues and fund transfers) in all towns combined totalled $754.7 million, or $457 per capita in 2013. By comparison, revenues totalled $898.0 million in villages and $3,936.8 million in cities. Per capita, town revenues were less than half of those in villages ($1,005), and cities ($1,241).
Property taxes are the largest source of town revenue, totalling $382.3 million and 50.6% of all revenue. Towns ($232) collected less than half the per capita amount collected in cities ($531) and villages ($477). The second largest revenue source for towns is state aid, which includes shared revenues, transportation aids, and fire protection aids. State aids to towns totalled $223.4 million, or $135 per capita, less than villages ($156) or cities ($276).
Find out more by visiting wistax.org/municipalities.