Support for cities & villages shouldn’t be “Red” or “Blue”

Mayors representing two politically-different communities recently spoke with one voice regarding the need for the state to re-commit to the success of local governments. Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway distributed a joint Op Ed to the media throughout Wisconsin, calling for a reversal of decades of reduced state support for city and village government, and a recognition that cities and villages are critical to the state’s success. It’s a good read; take a look.

The State Needs to Re-Commit to Cities

By Brookfield Mayor Steven Ponto & Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway

The cities of Brookfield and Madison are different in many ways.  In one the majority votes red, the other blue. One is a suburban enclave, mostly white and upper middle-class. The other is the state’s second largest city and has a more diverse mix of people and incomes.

As the mayors of these two communities, we may disagree on many issues, but we both firmly agree on this: The Wisconsin Legislature needs to re-commit to helping cities flourish. Thriving municipalities are crucial to Wisconsin’s long-term economic success. To compete nationally and globally Wisconsin needs high quality communities that can attract and retain talent and enterprise and spur job creation. 

The state should increase its investment in cities because if cities are not doing well, neither is the state. We suggest three policy changes for accomplishing this: reversing cuts in state aid to cities, easing property tax levy limits, and allowing municipalities to create new revenue streams, such as a local sales tax, provided voters approve in a referendum.

Wisconsin’s cities and villages are home to:

  • 72% of the state’s population
  • 90% of the state’s commercial value
  • 87% of the state’s manufacturing value 

Most of the small businesses created in Wisconsin get their start in cities and villages.

Yet, the state government continues to disinvest in cities. In the last two decades, under both political parties, the state’s financial commitment to cities has been on a steady downward trend. At the same time, the state tightly restricts the ability of municipalities to raise their own revenues to fund the services people and businesses expect.

The largest state aid program for municipalities, called shared revenue, has been cut incrementally by $94 million since 2003, a 12.3% reduction. In 2003, Madison received $9.2 million and Brookfield just over $1 million in shared revenue from the state.  In 2021, Madison will receive $6.1 million and Brookfield just over $570,000. Meanwhile, the cost of providing services has, like everything else, increased substantially since 2003. 

Unless these policies are changed, municipalities in Wisconsin will be unable to provide the same level and quality of local services that they have. Lower quality services will eventually lead people and businesses to locate in other states with more prosperous and attractive cities.  

We call on the Legislature to use the state’s 2021-2023 budget to renew its partnership with municipalities by increasing its financial commitment to communities. We also urge the Legislature to ease the nation’s strictest property tax limits. Let municipal elected leaders have more control over local budgets and finances by providing flexibility on levy limits – perhaps by allowing communities experiencing little growth to increase their levy by at least the rate of inflation.

The Legislature should also expand local revenue options for municipalities to consider. The state can best help cities prosper, protect residents, and relieve over dependency on property taxes by giving communities other revenue options to pay for critical services like police, fire, streets, libraries, and parks. One obvious choice is to give communities the option of going to the voters with a referendum seeking permission to impose a local sales tax. While some communities like Brookfield would likely not pursue this option, other communities would.   

We may not agree on much, but we both love our communities and we both know we need the state to begin partnering with its local governments. This can best be done by reinvesting in communities, easing the strict limits on property tax collections, and providing more local revenue options. A great state needs successful cities. The state Legislature must do more to help municipalities succeed. 



ARPA is NOT the same as Shared Revenue

If you’re a local leader, you are undoubtedly hearing all of these “voices” in your head:

“Don’t spend ARPA dollars on ongoing expenses. It’s not a replacement for property taxes, shared revenues or transportation aids. Think “one-time” money. Take your time. Gather ideas from a range of sources. Pay particular attention to the quieter parts of your community, those areas or residents who may have critical needs, but are unlikely to show up at the municipal podium. Keep good records.”

Cities, villages, towns, counties and the state itself are wrestling with how they can–and how they should–spend the unbudgeted $5.711 billion coming their way as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The U.S. Treasury Department is scheduled to announce the rules for the program soon, and the dollars will begin arriving shortly thereafter. You have until the end of 2024 to spend your allocation. Perhaps the best thing to do with 2021 is to spend it doing careful planning.

While you’re planning for this short term shot of resources, take the time to speak up for your long-term needs. The state Legislature is putting together the state’s two-year budget, including deciding whether to increase long-neglected shared revenues. This billion-dollar budget item is a significant part of the state budget, but over the last 30 years it has lost ground, a lot of ground, to inflation, education, prisons and Medicaid. Since the 1970s, those four have taken ever-larger shares of the state general fund while police, fire, ems and other local services have received less. Make this the year that local services get their due.

The League is calling on its members to talk to lawmakers about shared revenue. Make a phone call, pass a resolution, give lawmakers a tour of your favorite local potholes. Spread the word: local government matters; it’s time for an increase in shared revenue.

Legislators have a job very similar to your own. They have more needs than resources, so they do their best to make the dollars go as far as they can. Your job is to help them understand where police, EMS and snow plow drivers fit into that priority scheme.

So, when it comes to finances, you have to have your eyes on the present and on the future. How you will allocate the valuable, one-time ARPA resources matters a lot right now. How the Legislature will treat shared revenues matters a lot next year and every year thereafter.  And your job is to balance both.

Don’t screw up your ARP windfall

One of my favorite thought leaders on local government matters is Mark Funkhouser. Funkhouser is the former Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri and onetime publisher of the influential “Governing” magazine. Funkhouser is now the President and CEO of Funkhouser Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in local governments. I enjoyed his recent blog post on ARP funding so much that I asked him for permission to reproduce it. Take the time to ponder “Mayor Funk’s” advice before deciding how to spend the one-time money coming your way. -Jerry D.

As state and local governments celebrate the latest federal stimulus package, I’m struck by what I heard recently from Uri Monson, CFO of the Philadelphia School District: “The hardest thing to do in government,” Uri told me, “is to deal with one-time money and not waste it.”

I’m happy to share my own perspective with a little less elegance: State and local governments had better not be stupid with this money.

Our consultant Liz Farmer, a municipal finance expert, wrote the “The 7 Deadly Sins of Public Finance” several years ago. It should be required reading for anyone in government right now. At the top of the list is the commandment to avoid using one-time funds to fix long-term problems. Frankly, it’s a good thing that governments are barred by the American Rescue Plan from using stimulus dollars to pay down pension debt. But there are other places where it may be tempting to plug gaps with stimulus dollars. If you use that money to paper over this year’s structural problems, you’ll have squandered your cash – and still be in a financial rut next year.

Another trap governments should avoid is using the stimulus to build new assets or launch new programs that will saddle them with new, unfunded operating costs. If you create new long-term operating expenses, you may be in a worse position than if you hadn’t spent the money at all.

The $350 billion heading to state and local governments to backfill revenue deficits and stimulate additional public spending is an incredible opportunity for not only relief but for growth. Localities have wide latitude on their use the money, and the money coming their way is significant. For example, Atlanta, a medium-sized city of about 489,000, will get $178 million. Alpharetta, an Atlanta suburb with a population of 65,000, will get $21 million. Fulton County, where both cities are located, will get $206 million. Given this windfall, what should localities do?

For many of us, it’s been a while since we traveled by air. But we all remember the instructions to “secure your own mask first before assisting others.” The same rule applies for local government. First, fix your own emergency before tackling anything else. Replenishing depleted reserves would be responsible, for example, even if it wouldn’t generate the same headlines as a groundbreaking for a new community center or light-rail line.

Second, consider investing some of that money to reduce your operating costs. We all know deferred maintenance costs more the longer you put it off. Now is an opportunity to make those long-overdue investments in infrastructure. Think of a deteriorating school with major maintenance expenses as the HVAC system fails, the parking lot crumbles and the pipes leak. A new school that doesn’t require frequent, costly Band-Aids could reduce maintenance costs for decades to come. Nailing down this balance – how to spend money today to save money down the road – requires a careful analysis of your data, along with a serious commitment to citizen engagement.

Next, think beyond your borders. Cooperate on regional projects that wouldn’t have been possible before but are now within reach, thanks to everyone’s infusion of cash. This may seem to violate my rule about avoiding new operating costs. But quality infrastructure is a driver of economic growth, allowing governments to get an ROI on these dollars.

And finally, making those overdue investments in technology and cybersecurity is another way to save costs down the road while simultaneously better serving your constituents. During the pandemic, scores of governments invested in technology like video conferencing to keep public meetings accessible or mobile hotspots to provide internet access to underserved residents. In addition, with governments conducting more business online, there has been an increased concern about cyber-threats. Thoughtfully investing in areas such as these can save unnecessary pain in the future.

Of course, some of the money should and must be spent on social services and small businesses in a way that helps avert short-term disaster. And we should pursue all of this work through the lens of social equity. We’ve seen all too often that when governments run into fiscal headwinds, the first people who get hurt are those in marginalized communities. Let’s not repeat those mistakes. Instead, let’s use this unprecedented infusion of cash to make an equally unprecedented commitment to equity. We’ve only got one shot to get it right.

Have you found a creative way to leverage your community’s stimulus dollars? Please send me a note, and we may feature it in the next newsletter.

Thanks, and please stay in touch!

Are we taking this seriously?

On a scale of 1-10, how seriously are we taking the Covid-19 Pandemic? On Wednesday, a city administrator told me he went to pick up a to-go order at a local bar/restaurant the night before and found the bar open, with a crowd of folks lined up elbow to elbow. Meanwhile, three Wisconsin counties are reporting “community spread” cases of the illness. Community spread means so many people have the virus in one area that it is now spreading from people within the county; it was not brought in from Italy, China, or a cruise ship. No counties had community spread two days ago; there are three counties today. How many will there be in a week? Are we taking this seriously enough?

The League’s job is to help you do your job. To that end, we’re tracking down and cranking out as much information as we can find that is relevant to municipal responses to the Coronavirus. Our role is to listen to you and then find answers to your questions, particularly those questions that relate to state laws and regulations. If you haven’t done so recently, I recommend you check out the Coronavirus page on We’re updating it constantly and there’s some very useful, practical information there.

On St. Patrick’s Day the Governor issued Emergency Order Number Five. That order closes the taverns in Wisconsin (never thought I’d see that), limits restaurants to “carry out” and, most significantly, it places a moratorium on “mass gatherings” of ten people or more. The order echoes the latest recommendation from the world-renowned Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which were amplified by President Trump’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign.

The order exempts government offices from the crowd moratorium, allowing city councils, village boards, and the other instruments of government to continue. That’s necessary, good and helpful, but I’ll be honest with you; it’s also troubling. You now have the power to decide whether crowds may gather in municipal buildings. Use that power wisely.

The curveThe Governor’s order, President Trump’s campaign and your work at the local level are all targeted at the same goal: flattening the curve. “Flattening the curve” means slowing down the spread of the Coronavirus to a rate that our hospitals, doctors and clinics can handle. If we don’t slow it down, there will quickly come a point where there are more people who need to be in the hospital than there are hospital beds available. Italy found out to its horror what happens when you don’t flatten the curve. People die in the corridors of hospitals as they wait their turn for a ventilator or other critical care.

Flattening the curve happens by limiting person-to-person contact. It doesn’t make the virus go away, but it allows our health care providers to adequately treat those who are seriously ill. The alternative, people who need critical care but can’t get it, is something we should not even consider. Emergency Order Number Five was the most recent action taken to flatten that curve. But its success or failure will be determined locally.

The CDC is in Atlanta. President Trump is in the White House. Governor Evers is in the State Capitol building. You’re on the ground in your community. The success or failure of things like Executive Order Number Five is more in your power than that of the scientists at CDC, President Trump or Governor Evers. Are we planning to cancel large public hearings or use teleconference technology where possible, or will we maintain “business as usual”? How seriously are we taking this?

Numbers, numbers, numbers


January always gets me thinking about numbers. Perhaps it’s from ytears of preparing and presenting year-end reports to radio listeners (in a younger life) or to boards of directors (in When the calendar says it’s January, I automatically start to tally things up. You can learn a lot from numbers.

One very enlightening number that I heard this month is $1,466,370,391, followed by the number 1,596. $1.47 billion is the total amount needed to fund each of the 1,596 transportation projects that have been submitted by cities, villages, towns and counties in response to a one-time grant program created by the Wisconsin Legislature and managed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The “Multimodal Local Supplement” (MLS) grant was created by lawmakers who were being told that local transportation systems were in need of catching up after years of deferred repairs. It was funded with $75 million. Demand has exceeded available funding by over 1,800-percent.

As expected, roads make up the dominant share of the applications. Roads are at the top of most local priority lists, although there are also important harbor and bus-related requests. Bicycle and pedestrian applications account for roughly 3.5% of the total. It’s too soon to say what the final “mix” of projects actually funded by the department will look like.

Review committees made up of local transportation experts are poring over the hundreds of requests now. They have the unenviable job of recommending which ones should be funded. Pity them. The reality is that there will be more applications rejected than will be funded. At most a few hundred projects will be funded out of the 1,596 requests. Good, necessary projects will be left behind.

Wisconsin has known that its transportation system had some cracks and was suffering deferred maintenance. In addition to providing a needed shot in the arm for local public works budgets, these January numbers give us a glimpse of just how far behind we are. Wisconsin now has a 1,596-page catalog of local transportation needs. We obviously still have some work to do.

I don’t want to close this column on a “downer.” The Governor and Legislature deserve credit for making a significant investment in transportation funding (for all modes) in the most recent state budget. The $75 million one-time MLS grants will provide very important relief. We can complain that it’s not enough, but let’s not forget that it’s not just about roads. It’s not easy to balance growing Medicaid, school aids, University and corrections needs with equally-important roads, bridges, harbors and transit needs. It’s all important to the citizens of Wisconsin and there’s just so much money available. Those are hard decisions and we thank our state elected leaders for making them.

But, most of all, I argue that this most recent crop of numbers is a testament to the people who drive snow plows and buses and those who do the thankless job of caring for the pavement beneath them. Local government workers across Wisconsin deserve a huge pat on the back for keeping those underfunded local systems operating as well as they have. The needs have been growing, and this grant program has shown just how big the need has become. But, in the meantime, men and women in high-visibility vests with shovels in their hands have been holding it together. In classic, pragmatic local government “can-do” fashion, you have been keeping Main Street plowed and paved, the bike paths open, the harbors deep and the buses running on time. Thank you. Stay safe.

Day 2, Flying Through

What a jam-packed day! Day two of the conference was a busy day full of information and great networking with others. I hope that you enjoyed all the break out sessions just as much as I did.We had such a wide range of topics covered today from PFAS, to Liquor Licencing, covering the importance of ethics and so much more. While these topics might seem like boring issues to the average person; I always digging in when discussing policy. As local leaders it is vital that we always continue to learn new ideas and share our experiences with others because this is how we are able to grow and make improvements. 

It was  great to hear from Tricia Braun during lunch. Tricia is the Chief Operating Officer at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. She is charged with leading the organization’s efforts to promote Wisconsin and help foster a positive workforce environment all across Wisconsin. It was wonderful to hear all the great work that WEDC is doing to help promote Wisconsin and encourage people to relocate here. As local leaders we rely on our state partners to help promote and life up our communities. 

We also took time to recognize Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna for his many years of service to Appleton and the League. I know that we all wish him well in his retirement. Mayor Hanna is a shining example of what a local leader should do.

Congrats on the respective winners for the Local Spark and Arts in the Community Awards. It is important to recognize the great work that is being done around the state, and brightening up our communities whether big or small. Seeing the great work being done reminds me that no matter the size of the municipality, that we can all achieve creative and innovative projects. 

This conference is zipping by. We are in the home stretch. I am super excited to hear LeRoy Butler speak tomorrow!

First Day of #LeagueWI2019 Starts Strong

The first day of the 121st League Conference is off to a great start. It is always rejuvenating to see so many passionate local leaders that care about making their communities a better place. I know this will be a very successful conference because we have a great lineup of speakers and sessions. I hope that you will learn a lot and leave this conference with a great sense of commitment to your community.

This has been an exciting day so far. This morning started off with several informational deep dive sessions. I attend the session on innovative housing solutions. As local leaders we all know that housing is an issue that we all are trying to address and help meet the needs of our communities. As we all know, there is no single easy solution to addressing the housing issue. That is why Kurt Paulsen encouraged all of our cities and villages to develop a community housing plan. When we develop strong housing plans, only then can our cities and villages begin to move forward.

I don’t know about you but, I filled my bag with so much stuff from the vendor fair. I now have plenty of pens and note pans to make it through the next year. I always enjoy chatting with the vendors and learning about all the different partners that we have that help us by providing us with the tools to help see our projects through. I would like to give a shout out to all of those sponsors and vendors that participated during the vendor fair. Whenever I swing through the exhibit hall, I am always excited to hear what services that Sheboygan utilized and some successes that they have had. 

I also want to thank the outgoing League Board President Tammy Bockhorst on a great year with her at the helm. Tammy’s leadership will be missed, but I know that she will continue to be a strong municipal leader for years to come. I also want to congratulate Mayor Zach Vruwink on becoming the new League Board President. As another young elected official, it is inspiring to see another young leader that is passionate about his hometown and Wisconsin. I know that Zach will do a wonderful job as the new Board President. 

It was great to have Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson from Gary Indiana speak during the business meeting. Mayor Freeman-Wilson also serves as the President of the National League of Cities. She reminded all of us about the importance to love our communities and how fostering positive civic engagement is vital for our future. I know that we all love our communities and strive everyday to show off the hidden jewels that our communities have.

We are just getting started, and I know that the rest of the conference will be just as great and invigorating. 

Ryan Sorenson – Sheboygan City Council

Who is ready for #LWM2019

Hi everyone, I’m Ryan Sorenson. I am on the Sheboygan City Council. Jerry is letting me take over his blog for the next few days so I can share my perspective and thoughts about the upcoming League of Municipalities Conference. This will be the best and biggest conference so far. I hope that you are just as excited as I am!

I think it is very fitting that we are having the conference in Green Bay this year. So far the Packers are rocking, and finally have a defense! They also will hopefully continue to hold their 1st place status for the NFC North. Don’t get me wrong the Packer still have room for improvement, just like all of us. It is even more exciting that LeRoy Butler will be our closing speaker. LeRoy was the original Lambeau Leaper. Having LeRoy is only just one of the exciting things that will be at this year’s conference. This year at the conference there will be big trucks in the exhibit hall, ethics expert Michael Gillette will be back, and of course there will be many engaging breakout sessions.

Attending the annual conference is always invigorating and helpful for me. There is always so much that I learn when I attend the conference. When I leave the conference I feel like I have added more tools in my tool belt, which makes me a better local leader. When we all have the tools and learn new ideas, we are able to make all our communities a better place.

I am looking forward to meeting and connecting with many of you. If you see me, please stop by and say hi!



Bonus round for potholes!

Eau Claire St. 4 2016 GailWisconsin’s long road back to a well-maintained transportation system has begun. Yesterday the Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced the details of a one-time grant competition to invest $75 million repairing, rebuilding and/or upgrading Wisconsin’s local roads, bridges, bike trails and transit systems. The grant program is one part of a state transportation budget that acknowledged the need to beef up our transportation system, especially (but not exclusively) the local part of our system.

The League has a simple message for Wisconsin’s cities and villages: APPLY! Come on, you know you have a road that’s long overdue for reconstruction, a bus stop that should have been bulldozed years ago, or a pedestrian trail nobody uses because it has more weeds, mud puddles and broken concrete than it has walkers. This is their chance; it’s the bonus round! As they say on the commercial: “Send it in!”

I give Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson, Governor Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Legislature a serious “tip of the hat” on this one. It’s flexible, it’s responsive and it lets YOU at the LOCAL level make the call. Projects can be everything from “shovel ready” (can we hate that term yet??) to a gleam in your Public Works Director’s eye. As long as the project can be completed within six years, it’s eligible. Minimum project size is $250,000, and the maximum size is $3.5 million. You must have something that fits in between those two numbers. Every city and village does.

We won’t regurgitate all of the rules and regulations here; you can read them at the WisDOT’s web site. Just remember the deadline: December 6.

We also have a request: Send us pictures. The League would love to see the critical projects that our members want to work on. Send us an ugly “before” picture.

Potholes, your days are numbered.


A life or death conversation

One of my mentors is Clarence Anthony, the Executive Director of the National League of Cities. A week ago, Clarence posted this item as he reflected on the most recent round of pointless and tragic mass shootings. Like many of us, Clarence is struggling to understand why these things happen. But like many of us in the arena of local government, he asks an even more important and immediate question: What’s our role? What’s our role in response to tragedies such as those that have occurred in El Paso, Dayton, and Oak Creek? What’s our role in averting and avoiding these acts of deadly outrage? What’s our role as citizens?

Democracy in America is not a spectator sport. It is nothing more and nothing less than  every one of us acting together for the common good. What’s the role of democracy in the face of domestic terrorism? This will be a difficult conversation. It may be a painful conversation. But it’s a conversation we need to have if we are ever going to find a solution to this violence.

To quote Clarence Anthony: No more, no more, no more.