Public Policy Forum Blog

The tools in Milwaukee's revenue toolbox

As the Public Policy Forum’s 2010-2011 Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellow, I have completed my year-long project that analyzed how local governments raise revenue. The report, The tools in Milwaukee's revenue toolbox, stems from a 2009 Forum report that assessed the fiscal health of the City of Milwaukee. That report found that the city is over-reliant on state shared revenue as its main revenue source, and handcuffed by rising fringe benefit costs for city employees and growing expenditure pressures associated with police and fire services (which account for more than one half of all city operating expenditures).

Under the recently adopted state budget repair bill, the city has been granted cost-saving “tools” that will allow it to impose greater fringe benefit cost-sharing for non-public safety city employees. Yet, some city officials and policymakers are unsure if these tools, because they exempt public safety employees and are coupled with a cut in state shared revenue, will be enough to alter the city’s fiscal predicament. Consequently, my project explores the other side of the debate – the revenue toolbox. It asks what alternative revenue structures exist in other cities, and whether they are suitable for Milwaukee.

To answer these questions, we researched 15 cities that are comparable to Milwaukee, analyzed each city’s budget, and compared how each city generates revenue. Our key finding was that Milwaukee relies heavily on intergovernmental revenue (i.e. state shared revenue) to fund its budget (46% of general budget revenue), while the comparison cities raise the bulk of their revenues via the use of broad-based sales, property, and/or income taxes. In fact, no other city relies on intergovernmental revenue for even a third of its budget, and the vast majority has a dependence of less than 10%. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s use of broad-based taxation for only 20% of its general budget pales in comparison to the other cities, the vast majority of whom use broad-based taxes for more than half of their general budgets.

Given these findings, we next examined the sales, income and property tax and their potential application in Milwaukee if city leaders were authorized to use them to reduce reliance on state shared revenue. Some of the insights we gleaned are as follows:

  • Because Wisconsin has a relatively low sales tax compared to other states, implementing a city sales tax of .01% to 1% would not put Milwaukee out of line with comparable cities nationally, and could benefit the city by requiring non-residents to contribute toward the cost of city services. Milwaukee does not have the ideal sales tax base, however, because of the comparably low amount of retail sales that take place in the city, and because of Milwaukee’s high poverty rate.
  • A city tax on individual income would allow for the possibility of shielding the poor from tax liability through specific tax rates for different income groups, or the ability to utilize deductions and credits. Also, such a tax potentially could be applied to non-residents who work in the city as well as residents, thus providing a mechanism to collect revenue from non-residents who use city services. On the other hand, even without a local income tax, residents in Milwaukee already have a relatively high state income tax burden, and adding an additional layer of income taxation could be harmful to the attraction of residents and businesses.
  • Using a property tax to fund a greater proportion of the city budget could allow for a more predictable revenue stream because local governments would have some ability to change the tax rate to meet expenditure needs or to accommodate a decline in property values. Yet, because Milwaukee has comparably low assessed property values, funding a larger portion of the general budget with property taxes would require Milwaukee to add substantially to its already high property tax rates.
  • An option in which city leaders were allowed to pursue a better balance of revenue sources by implementing a 1.0% city sales tax would allow for a sizeable decrease in property tax rates and reduced reliance on state shared revenue.

In the end, the report demonstrates that there are no easy answers to the City of Milwaukee’s revenue dilemma. In the event that the cost-saving tools contained in the budget repair bill are not enough to address Milwaukee’s longstanding fiscal problems, however, it also shows that it may be helpful to consider a balanced revenue structure that is more comparable to the other cities we studied.

Special thanks to the Gill family for their generous support of this project through the Norman N. Gill Fellowship, and the Public Policy Forum for their assistance and guidance throughout the year.