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A little off the top, added to bottom line

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Waukesha Freeman Opinion Page A5 11/21/2013

A little off the top, added to bottom line

Waukesha tax levy goes up despite budget trim

There was a teachable moment in Tuesday night’s meeting of the Waukesha Common Council. The Common Council cut the proposed city budget $38,800 but you’re not going to benefit from it.

City Administrator Ed Henschel told the aldermen the city will be penalized in the next budget if the council does not spend the money. He suggested that they continue to tax that amount and put it in the contingency fund.

Henschel’s reasoning is not that surprising from the bureaucracy’s point of view. Because of the tax levy limits imposed by the state, if spending is cut in the current budget, all future budgets are limited by that amount.

That’s why Henschel said “the city” would be “penalized,” even though the proper way to look at it is that future tax bills will be limited by the amount of the cut.

Henschel blamed the desire for the higher taxes on the state’s policy, the tax levy limits, but that’s only if you buy into what is commonly referred to as the “tax to the max” theory.

“Tax to the max” works like this: Raise the tax levy as much as you can get away with each year to increase the base amount of taxation in future years. It’s the belief that any amount that a city does not tax is somehow “lost.”

What is forgotten is that real people will have to pay the higher, unnecessary taxes just so the government can have even higher taxes later.

While making the suggestion the $38,800 should go into the contingency fund, Henschel even went so far as to lament how the council, by restraining spending in past years, somehow “hurt” the city in future years.

Unfortunately, the council almost unanimously bought into Henschel’s suggestion with almost no discussion. Only Alderwoman Kathleen Cummings voted against the budget amendment to take the $38,800 for the contingency fund rather than lower the proposed tax levy by that amount.

The council actually spent more time debating cutting the grass on the median strips for the county and the state. Of course, if the council had cut the grass-cutting budget by $10,000, Henschel would have requested the council to put that money in the contingency fund, too, rather than passing the savings along to the taxpayer.

By the way, when Henschel assured the council that he would not spend the entire grass-cutting budget unless it was necessary, why would any council member believe him after Henschel didn’t want to let go of the money they already cut?

It’s not as if the $38,800 would bankrupt the city. The total tax levy is already going up 2.7 percent.

But just as cutting that amount would affect future budgets, so will raising that amount in the tax levy. Every year going forward, the council will have that extra $38,800 built into the base tax levy to build upon for the following year.

This is a scene that is repeated over and over again in school board and municipal budget meetings across the state. At least Henschel gave it a novel twist by saving it for the end of the night.

I know it was late in the evening. I know that the aldermen were tired of hearing about the budget, and what Henschel said to them probably sounded good to tired ears.

The goal of the Common Council ought not to be how to preserve the city’s power to have higher taxes in the future. The goal should be providing the necessary city services for the lowest possible cost to the taxpayers.

The aldermen got suckered, and city residents are going to pay for it. At least I hope they were suckered, because I hate to believe that the council wants to keep raising taxes on the residents. But higher taxes are what the aldermen voted for, not just for this budget but future budgets.

Well, live and learn.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://www.wigderson.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

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