The City of Eau Claire will ask voters this November if they'd support raising property taxes to maintain city services. The city's manager says if such a referendum fails, cuts are likely.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Eau Claire City Council approved putting a referendum question on the November ballot seeking to exceed state tax limits.
A referendum has been discussed by the council since at least January, when the city's finance manager told members the government can "keep limping along" or increase the level of services provided by the city.
Eau Claire's 2022 budget includes nearly $3 million in unfunded department requests including additional fire department paramedics, community services positions and an IT network engineer.
Council member Kate Felton told Wisconsin Public Radio that state law limits property tax increases to the amount of new construction.
"What's happening right now is that our expenses, things like annual cost of living, increases to people's paychecks, things like the increasing cost of health care — those costs to the city are outpacing what we're legally able to increase taxes by," Felton said.
The language of the referendum question has yet to be written, but the council's vote indicated the city seeks to raise between $1 million and $1.8 million each year on an ongoing basis.
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Eau Claire City Manager Stephanie Hirsch said if the council pulls the plug on the referendum proposal, or if voters reject it in November, city services could suffer.
"We will have to find ways to make cuts to the services we provide," Hirsch said. "And we will be really strategic about that and try to do it in a way that minimizes the impact to the residents."
Felton said that would likely mean cutting existing city positions, which could potentially result in slower response times for fire department paramedics.
"The reality is that we just we need to pursue a referendum to ask the community to help us fund that that level of service as it is now," Felton said.
While public school districts have long used referendums to increase tax revenues, it's a less common tool for city governments.
In the last three years, the cities of Racine, Delafield, Fond du Lac, Fort Atkinson, Beaver Dam, Elkhorn and Milton have sought tax levy increases via referendum. Voters rejected Racine's request in 2020. The Fond du Lac referendum was approved in 2021.