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County tax limits threaten roadwork

By Paul Snyder

La Crosse County has more than $20 million in highway work it cannot afford.

And unless a bill to repeal a 17-year-old tax limit becomes law, County Administrator Steve O’Malley said, the situation will get worse: The county will have to lay off Highway Department staff members.

“Right now, we can only afford about $2.1 million in road projects every year,” O’Malley said. “We’re falling behind on demand, and the effect there is that you pay for more and more projects, big or small, with debt.”

State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, is trying to make it easier for La Crosse and other counties on the verge of hitting a tax limit set in 1993 that he said most lawmakers forgot existed.

According to state law, Wisconsin counties cannot exceed their 1992 operating tax rates, or the amount per $1,000 of property taxes collected, for spending on county services such as maintenance on buildings, parks and roads.

The amount varies from county to county, said Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association. He said counties that were frugal about taxing residents in 1992 likely would be the first to hit their limits.

As property values rose in the 1990s, most counties never approached their limits because the property tax base was growing faster than county tax increases, said Mark Harris, Winnebago County Administrator.

But eventually, counties began approaching their tax limits, he said, because costs rose faster than the tax base. Plus, state and federal aid declined.

“Let’s say you build more county road to reach into these developing areas,” Harris said. “The new taxes can help pay for extending services, but that does not account for increases in material prices or labor.”

If other federal and state governments provide less money, O’Malley said, counties must rely more on taxes. But if state-imposed limits prevent that, an already difficult roadwork situation will worsen.

“If we don’t have the funds,” he said, “it just makes it harder to meet the challenges we face.”

Those challenges include finding the cash to resurface, expand and maintain roads, said Keith Back, La Crosse County’s assistant highway commissioner.

But Hintz’s bill has drawn criticism. Wisconsin Property Taxpayers Inc. opposes Hintz’s bill because it removes voters’ rights to decide through referendum whether to lift county limits, said Michael Birkley, the group’s legislative director.

“This bill basically says you can raise taxes as much as you want without regard for what the taxpayer wants,” he said. “They’d never have to go to referendum.”

Hintz disagreed. Although his bill lifts one tax limit, he said, it retains a law prohibiting counties from increasing operating taxes more than 3 percent without referendum.

“If you want to go above your levy limits for a major building project, you still have to go to referendum,” he said. “Anytime you say something in a bill that repeals a law, people are going to get nervous, but I’m not sure they understand what this bill does.”

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