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Voters support 85 percent of municipal public safety referendums in Tuesday election

Referendums in cities, villages, towns and counties sought additional property tax revenues to pay for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical staff

Whitewater ambulance
The City of Whitewater is asking voters to approve a $1.1 million dollar November 8 referendum that will help hire 17 full-time firefighters/EMS staff to replace a volunteer staff. Photo Courtesy of the City of Whitewater

Voters in cities, villages and counties around Wisconsin approved 85 percent of public safety referendums Tuesday. Such referendums are becoming more common in the face of rising costs, stagnant state support and limits imposed by the Wisconsin Legislature on property tax increases.

There were 20 public safety referendums on ballots in municipalities around Wisconsin. Voters approved 17 of them. The referendums asked voters for permission to raise property taxes to pay for a wide variety of government services like additional police officers, firefighters and emergency medical staff.

Chippewa Falls Voters approved a $1.2 million annual property tax increase to hire three additional firefighters and one police officer. Chippewa Falls Police Chief Matthew Kelm told Wisconsin Public Radio the additional officer will be on call for what the department calls a “power shift.”

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“So, that officer is going to be an extra person between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m., which is our busiest call volume for number of calls and for the severity of calls,” said Kelm.

Kelm said the additional revenue will also let the department increase wages for officers, which he hopes will attract more applicants from a dwindling labor pool.

Voters in the City of Whitewater approved a $1.1 million referendum to allow the city to move to a full-time fire and EMS department. Common Council President Lisa Dawsey Smith said the city had relied for more than 100 years on volunteers for fire and EMS, but they’ve been harder to come by in recent years.

“I am grateful and humbled that when people went to the polls, they made that decision to support this referendum,” said Dawsey Smith. “It really does show that they prioritize the level of care that the community needs and deserves.”

Referendums have become common for school districts seeking additional money for things like new buildings. But referendum questions posed by cities, villages, counties and towns to pay for government services have historically been far less common.

Jerry Deschane is the executive director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities advocacy group. He said there have been 37 public safety referendums in the state this year, a number the league describes as “staggering.”

“The fact that we’re going to referendum over and over again means the system of finances is unsustainable,” said Deschane. “Bottom line: the system we use is broken. It needs to be reformulated.”

Aside from property taxes, local governments receive a share of income and sales tax revenues collected by the state. Deschane said over the past 30 years, that shared revenue has declined in real dollars while state collections have increased.

“We think it’s time to look at additional revenue sources, not so much to increase spending, but to reconnect local government services to the economy and also, quite frankly, to diversify the local revenue sources,” said Deschane.

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