Officials gather to discuss regional collaboration and address broken system of funding local services

LOGO 2019


DATE:              February 21, 2023

TO:                  Local Media Outlets

FROM:             Rebecca Houseman LeMire, City Manager

RE:                   Officials gather to discuss regional collaboration and address broken system of funding local services

Jefferson County officials gathered Monday, at a Local Government Officials meeting at the Dwight Foster Public Library, to discuss efforts at regional collaboration for service provision and urge the Wisconsin legislature to fix the broken system of funding critical local services.  The meeting hosted by the City of Fort Atkinson was aimed at starting conversations with elected officials in the Wisconsin legislature.

The meeting featured a presentation from Deb Reinbold, Executive Director of Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium and President of Thrive ED, who discussed the shift in economic development strategy and recent local success stories. She highlighted the organization’s public/private partnership and explained the overall benefits to Jefferson County.

“We are a connector and an ambassador,” Reinbold said. “I’m not going out and building new houses, but I am connecting with developers and going out and meeting with workforce development boards.”

She said their strategic plan is working and mentioned the City of Fort Atkinson’s Capital Catalyst Revolving Loan Fund, Jefferson County’s Revolving Loan Fund and the different tools being used to get businesses to locate in Jefferson County including partnerships with the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation, private business and others.

“We are trying to deploy as many incentives as we can to make development happen here in Jefferson County,” Reinbold said. “We need a workforce for businesses to grow. From 2010 to 2020 we only added 1,006 residents. We need to try to engage people to come here.”

The unemployment rate in Jefferson County in December was 2%. She said the Consortium is working with area under-represented populations to help fill some of the jobs in the County that are open. They held the first Latino Academy in Watertown to help connect people with jobs and childcare, among other things.

The Consortium is also working to keep students in the county after high school to help fill jobs in the area instead of moving away. She discussed a video series she is proposing to the Jefferson County Economic Development and Thrive ED boards that would address some of the topics high school students might not know about entering the workforce locally.

JCEDC is partnering to with area municipalities to address the lack of housing in Jefferson County.

“Affordable housing is an issue, but it’s really housing of all types,” she said.

The vacancy rate in Jefferson County is 2%. Reinbold said one of their goals is to help bring in housing. The Consortium is working with consultants to help municipalities solve some of their housing issues.

Reinbold said there are developers who are interested in building in the county in the next several years, but the issue developers have is the rent they can charge in Jefferson County is less than what’s charged in Dane, Waukesha or Milwaukee counties. The consortium has been meeting with the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation and a consultant they hired to figure out how to bridge that gap for developers to build here in Jefferson County. They are looking at the possibility of a revolving loan fund to help.

“They all see that Jefferson County is that gateway between Madison and Milwaukee,” she said.

Officials in attendance also heard from local leaders in Watertown, Whitewater, Fort Atkinson and Lake Mills relating to the struggle to provide critical services under the current shared revenue funding formula and levy limits.

“I feel like I’ve been talking about shared revenue and expenditure restraint and local finance reform for as long as I’ve been in local government,” said Watertown Mayor Emily McFarland.

She said she’s worked at all levels of government and has been in local government for 10 years.

“It gives me a unique perspective on what we are asking for,” McFarland said.

The expenditure restraint program provides targeted, general aid to towns, villages, and cities. The aid is targeted in that municipalities must qualify for a payment by meeting certain eligibility criteria.

“I started on the Common Council in 2014, I was just finishing grad school getting my master’s in public administration and I wanted to solve all of the world’s problems in local government,” McFarland said. “I sat down in one of my first budget meetings and realized unless we wanted to lose half a million dollars we could only increase our budget $109,000.”

She said the increase in health insurance premiums for that year were going to cost an additional $191,000.

In 2017 in Watertown she said she had the discussion about turning off every other street light to stay in the expenditure restraint program and give their staff a small cost of living increase.

“Our electrical bill was about half a million dollars and that was one of the ways we discussed to fund a small salary increase for our employees,” she said. “This isn’t going to be an easy exchange of just getting out of expenditure restraint or taxing more. It really has to be a partnership.”

Currently, local governments are primarily funded through property tax revenue and intergovernmental revenue (state shared revenue). Property tax revenue is limited by “levy limits” imposed by state law. This law limits the local government’s ability to increase property tax revenue to the percentage of net new construction from the prior year. The statutes allow for local governments to borrow funds outside of the levy limit and to seek voter approval for an increase in property taxes through the referendum process.

The City of Whitewater had a $1.1 million referendum on the ballot in November for fire and EMS service.

“These challenges are not unique,” said John Wiedl, Whitewater City Manager. “Levy limits were designed to force communities into referendums and make it so the threshold is really high. Communities are hitting that threshold and are successful with referendums, but for those that aren’t they are experiencing the real repercussions of not having the revenues.”

The City of Fort Atkinson also had a Fire and EMS referendum on the ballot in 2022.

“We saw an increase in our fire calls that required more than a volunteer response,” said Rebecca Houseman LeMire, Fort Atkinson City Manager. “The impact of the referendum was seen on all of our taxpayers.”

LeMire stated the referendum does not have an escalator and will not increase over time, even though the costs of running a fire and EMS service will continue to go up.

“We will blow by expenditure restraint because of the referendum,” she said. “For our 2024 budget, we will lose over $200,000 from the state because we increased our general fund expenditures past what was permitted for the expenditure restraint program.”

Drake Daily, Lake Mills City Manager said Lake Mills is in an unusual spot when it comes to net new construction, which allows a municipality to increase its budget by that percentage, because they had 2.24% net new construction.

“That allows us to increase our levy by about $65,000,” he said. “We’re about two police officers behind where we should be and that would cost us about $200,000.”

Lake Mills is also facing fire and EMS struggles. The Lake Mills City Council decided not to go to referendum in 2023, but is now looking for a contracted service that could cost between $30 to $60 per capita compared to the current $17 per capita the City currently pays for EMS.

“We are actively pursuing economic development,” Daily said. “We’ve had success and we have grown and we are still not able to meet the needs of our residents and businesses because of the restrictions from state mandates.”

He said local government funding needs to be reviewed again.

“Core services are suffering because of it and we need to find a solution,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to continue doing everything we’ve always done and continue to meet the needs of the future.”

Rep. Scott Johnson, (R-Jefferson), was in attendance at the meeting and said he is understanding of the needs of local government.

“Half of the state surplus is one time money,” he said. “We’re working on it. I have one vote and it’s a learning curve.”

He further encouraged his fellow legislators in attendance to continue to learn about local government. Also present were Rep. William Penterman (R-Columbus) and Rep. Ellen Schutt (R-Clinton).

Both Penterman and Schutt discussed their willingness to continue an open dialog on the topic and an interest in hearing from their constituents.

Toni Herkert, Government Affairs Director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities encouraged those in attendance to continue to have these types of conversations and to get to know their legislators.

“If we get this across the finish line we need to thank the legislators who took the vote,” she said. “This is a huge lift.”

“We are all hopeful that the Legislature and the Governor will work together with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Counties Association, and the Wisconsin Towns Association to provide a funding source for local governments that is more than the current shared revenue formula, growing with the economy, and sustainable for the future,” summarized LeMire.


Group photo Jefferson County Officials Officials gather to discuss regional collaboration and address the broken system of funding local services at the Dwight Foster Public Library on Monday.


Rep. Scott Johnson, (R-Jefferson), was in attendance at the meeting and said he is understanding of the needs of local government.

IMG_1077Deb Reinbold, Executive Director of Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium and President of Thrive ED, discusses the shift in economic development strategy and recent local success stories.