A Taxing Problem in Milton
One of the things I’ve always liked about Milton was its relatively low cost of living.
When my wife and I moved back here in 1992, we weren’t the only ones lured by the city’s many charms. Affordable houses were being snapped up almost as quickly as they went on the market. During one memorable week, we had set up seven weekend appointments to look at houses, but by Saturday, every single seller had already received an offer.
When we did finally get our house here, not only was it relatively inexpensive, but so were the property taxes; no small feat considering the sterling reputation that the Milton School District has.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Over the last few years, taxes have risen sharply, and they are about to again.
The first big hit came a couple of years ago, when garbage pickup was broken out of the city’s portion of the property tax and charged as a separate “fee.” (Important note to aspiring politicians – apparently the term “fee” has a less negative connotation than “tax.” You will especially need to know this if you are elected to the State Legislature or as the Governor.) This garbage fee is still itemized on the property tax bill. Even though the City of Milton portion of my property taxes did slightly lower during the first year, the net effect was a tax increase of about $80. For my 2008 property tax bill, the fee was $120.
Then last year, the city of Milton won the prize among the taxing jurisdictions with a 14.6% increase, which in my case, translated to $116 in additional taxes. The Milton School District weighed in with a reasonable increase of $17, to bring my total increase to $133.
Tomorrow (Monday, August 17), the school district is voting to increase the tax levy by 10 percent. According to an item on page 3A of today’s Janesville Gazette, this means the mill rate for district property owners will increase 74 cents per $1,000 of equalized value. In my case, coupled with a $2,500 increase in my assessment, I’m going to get stung for an extra $121 on my tax bill next year. Even if my property assessment (which my wife and I unsuccessfully questioned) hadn’t changed, I’d still be getting hit for an extra $101.
A big part of the reason that this is happening is because of the State Legislature. In the new state budget, our legislators greatly decreased state aid to local school districts, leaving the local school boards to be the bad guys when they were left holding the bag. The state revenue cap – which dictates the maximum amount that the district can take in annually – hasn’t changed, but with less state aid, the local school board is left to fill in the gap. So the plan that Governor Thompson put in place years ago to keep local property taxes from soaring has essentially been blown up. And if you think state taxes or “fees” are going down to make up the difference, well, you’ve got another think coming.
One can argue that the local school board doesn’t have to fill in the entire gap and tax to the legal maximum revenue amount allowed by the state. And it’s true, they don’t have to. But if they don’t, the state penalizes them in future years, because the state of Wisconsin calculates the new revenue cap based on the previous year’s actual revenue amount rather than the previous year’s cap. Yes, you are reading that right. Local school boards are incented by the state not to be fiscally responsible.
Some politicians, including former Rep. Debi Towns, became aware of this ridiculous provision and passed a bill to try to end the practice. Unfortunately, along the road to passage, the Towns bill got watered down and the resulting law only provides a one-year opportunity for a local school district to go back and regain their full state revenue level.
I hate to sound defeatist, but I don’t think there is a thing any of us can do about it. I have several friends on the school board who are competent and well-meaning, and I know that the last thing they want to do is stick it to the taxpayers.
As bad as Milton’s levy increase is, Edgerton just voted to jack theirs up 20%. And as fellow blogger John Eyster noted on his “We The People” site , only a few people showed up at the budget meeting to even question that. Perhaps they feel as I do, that there is probably not much that can be done except open your pocketbook.
Besides the expected $121 hit from the school budget, the Milton City Council is about to enact a storm water utility. If you’re a Milton resident, I’m sure you’ve been hearing about this. If you’ve been vacationing for a couple of months, the link in the previous sentence will fill you in.
Again, a state mandate is forcing this cost upon local taxpayers, this time thanks to the Department of Natural Resources, which considers Milton to be part of Greater Janesville. If the ordinance creating the storm water utility is approved as proposed on Tuesday, August 18, local residents will immediately start getting charged $92 a year. So between this and the increased school taxes, I’m looking at, at least, a $213 increase in my property taxes next year. And that’s before Rock County, Blackhawk Technical College and the State of Wisconsin have their day with my wallet.
Fortunately, a couple of Milton City Council members are trying to soften the blow, but even if they succeed, it will only save me $37. Though I would certainly welcome any reduction.
With one teenager preparing to enter college and another two years behind, the large increase in taxes - coupled with a decrease in student financial aid - is especially troublesome to me. It seems like a vicious circle of paying more to get less.
About a decade ago, I served on a committee that studied the space needs of the Milton School District. Our committee’s final report concluded that there were several problem areas, particularly at the Milton Middle School. Those issues were never addressed at the time, which became painfully obvious when my children had a converted janitor’s office for a classroom when they attended MMS years later.
Now, a plan is in place to build a new Milton High School and convert the current high school to a middle school. This multi-million dollar referendum hasn’t made it to the ballot yet, wisely delayed by the school board due to the current state of the economy and the uncertainty of the district’s actual future growth.
If and when it does come to a vote, it will be a difficult sell. With taxes already increasing by hundreds of dollars per year, it’s going to be hard to get voters to willingly increase them some more, regardless of the need.