Property taxes are rising by leaps and bounds throughout Wisconsin. State Department of Revenue data shows property taxes billed in December 2020 and paid into 2021 marked the largest increase in a decade.
A new report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum says the main reason behind the tax hike is that local officials have increasingly turned to a small number of exceptions in state law that allow them to raise property taxes — including voter referenda for school districts and borrowing for municipalities and counties.
The Policy Forum’s analysis of state data finds that on the December 2020 tax bills alone, property taxes statewide were more than $1.1 billion higher than they otherwise would have been because of successful voter referenda to allow school building projects and increased spending on operations.
This year, school levies rose by up to $136.1 million over the previous year due to referenda provisions taking effect.
Municipalities and counties, in particular, are turning increasingly to borrowing. From 2010-2011 to 2020-2021, the combined use of this exception for payments on municipal and county debt issued after July 2005 rose from $333.6 million to $920 million, a 175.8% increase.
This finding suggests state-imposed levy limits may be leading some local governments to use debt for spending they would have once paid for with cash. The report points out the practice may not be financially sustainable, particularly if currently low interest rates rise.