Wisconsin Policy Forum

Amid the crisis of the pandemic’s onset in 2020, Wisconsin cities and villages increased spending on police, fire, and EMS services, while reducing other expenditures.

At the same time, overall city and village fund balances increased in 2020 in spite of initial concerns about the pandemic would affect their fiscal health. Their property tax levies increased slightly less than inflation, while their property tax rates continued a long-term decline. 

These are among the key findings from the Forum’s latest annual update to its interactive Municipal DataTool, which provides basic fiscal data on all 602 cities and villages in Wisconsin — from the village of Big Falls (population 60) to the city of Milwaukee.  Data used in this year’s DataTool comes from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and is the most recent available, either through 2020 or 2021.

The data show Wisconsin city and villages collectively reacted to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by slowing their overall spending, as expenditures on administration, general operations, and street maintenance were reduced. But perhaps reflecting the pressure to meet public safety needs during a turbulent year, this was not the case for public safety services.

Fire and ambulance spending grew by 5.1% across all municipalities, a larger increase than most of the last eight years. This might be explained at least in part by the pandemic, as some agencies may have seen increased call volumes and costs for personal protective equipment. The Forum also has documented a broader set of challenges for local fire and EMS agencies, many of which are struggling to maintain existing staffing models as call volumes rise and rosters of part-time or volunteer staff decline.

Police spending – by far the largest of these categories in total – increased 1.6%, slightly outpacing inflation in 2020.

Collections from property taxes, the largest revenue source for most Wisconsin cities and villages, increased for all municipalities by $20 per capita to $649 per resident on December 2021 bills. This is a 3.2% increase from 2020, but still below the 2021 rate of inflation (+4.7%).

Despite the increase in overall tax collections, municipalities have consistently decreased their property tax rates over the past five years. In 2021, the average property tax rate for all municipalities decreased by 3.7%, the largest year-over-year decline in at least the past eight years.

Wisconsin Department of Revenue data used for the Municipal DataTool is grouped into the following areas: property taxes, spending, debt, fund balances, shared revenue (a key form of state aid) and property values, and income and population. The latest eight years of data are provided, enabling users to see trends over time.

For each subject, users may choose data from as many as 10 municipalities to compare, or compare across all municipalities in a county. A “Key Findings” section summarizes major statewide trends. Visit wispolicyforum.org/research to access the 2022 Municipal DataTool.

This information is provided to Wisconsin Newspaper Association members as a service of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the state’s leading resource for nonpartisan state and local government research and civic education. Learn more at wispolicyforum.org.