By Shereen Siewert, Editor of Wausau Pilot and Review

City spending is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but the reality is that there’s only so much money to distribute without taxing residents out of their homes or businesses out of town.

One city alderman recently boasted on Facebook that the city is experiencing great growth. A look around Wausau shows that indeed, there have been wonderful changes to the area that make the city more vibrant. The riverfront is stunning. The 400 Block is a jewel. Our tourism industry continues to shine. And we could go on and on about the new art museum and what it adds to this community.

But then, there’s that pesky thing called numbers. As a testament to the city’s economic health, Economic Development Director Chris Schock in October shared with the economic development committee that so far in 2017, building permits have been issued for $47.6 million in construction value. Of that, $11.6 million is within a Tax Increment District, or TID. That means $30 million, or 76 percent of property growth, is taking place outside of TIDs. The figures, committee members said, were cause for celebration.

But what Schock didn’t share with the council, and what no one thought to ask, was whether or not those figures are truly enough to support the city’s budget.

The short answer is, no.

If you do the math, that $36 million being built outside of the TIDs calculates to about $357,300 in additional property tax revenue, using the 2018 proposed tax rate of 9.925 for every $1,000 of assessed value.

A good start, sure. But when an operational budget increases by $800,000 or more each year, that means the city isn’t keeping up.

If leaders assume they need to support a $1 million increase in the budget, that calculates out to about $108.1 million in development that must occur outside of the TIDs to meet that need. Using those numbers, we’re about a third of the way there.

The economic development team must create a strategic plan that includes long term goals. Those goals should be clearly stated and understood, and created to support budget increases so the city can afford to support the forward-thinking development we need to stay strong.

As it stands, we’ll be waiting until 2031 for 50 percent of the TID development value to start paying off and contributing to Wausau’s operational and infrastructure needs. That’s a long time to wait.

Our elected officials must make many difficult choices that involve weighing rival demands on scarce resources. But the reality is not all competing choices are equal, and not all projects must be funded with tax dollars.

Over the past few months, Wausau Pilot & Review has researched and reported on a number of tough issues for Wausau. Judging from the emails, calls, and comments to our Facebook posts, there is an underlying sense of unease that continues to permeate the city. To mitigate those concerns, the city’s leaders must do their homework, ask tough questions, do the math, and make the right choices for the future of this city, before agreeing to give away any future tax dollars.

Anything else would be a disservice to our citizens.

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