Public Policy Forum Blog

What's the Difference Between a Town, a Village, and a City?

While not noticed by most Greater Milwaukee residents, last week's spring election results included approval of a referendum by voters in the Town of Somers to incorporate into a village. This development precipitated a water cooler discussion at the Forum about what exactly the distinction is between a town, village, and city in the state of Wisconsin?

According to the Wisconsin Blue Book, as of 2010, the state had 1,851 general-purpose units of government (excluding counties). Of these, 1,257 were towns, 404 were villages, and 190 were cities.

In terms of similarities, all three forms of local government include an administrator who is either elected or appointed and is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the municipality. This is most often a mayor, manager, president, or board chair. In addition, all three types are considered general-purpose governments, meaning they provide general government services in a defined area, though what services are offered vary.

Population size and rural or urban location are the predominant characteristics for whether a municipality is classified as a town, village, or city. Also, while towns, villages, and cities all administer various public services, the extent of service provision typically is lower in towns. These services include things such as organizing local elections, maintaining roads, and collecting taxes.

Beyond that, two distinctions between the three units of government relate to police power and home rule. In general, cities and villages are authorized and subject to both while towns are not.

Police power refers to a municipality’s authority to take action – in the form of creating and enforcing laws and regulations – to ensure the safety, health, and well being of the community. Police power is significant in that it comes into play when managing a balance between individual rights and the collective public welfare. So, for example, zoning codes and ordinances are created to prevent conflicting land uses that can have a detrimental effect on community quality of life. As such, zoning can prevent an industrial site from being located adjacent to a school or residential area. These regulations effectively constrain what individual property owners can and cannot do on the land they own.

Home rule is authority granted by the state that allows municipalities to have some autonomy in the form of self-government. This includes the ability to regulate certain local affairs without the threat of pre-emption by state law. However, if an issue can be considered to surpass municipal boundaries and is classified as a statewide concern, the Legislature has the ultimate authority and can regulate the matter through state laws.

In Wisconsin, towns offer the most direct form of democracy, as decisions are made by annual or special town meetings (as opposed to the town board), including the establishment of tax rates. In villages and cities, elected officials are tasked with making these decisions on behalf of their constituents.

Finally, it is important to note that there is some room for hybrid units of local government in Wisconsin. For example, towns have the option of adopting village powers, which enables them to establish a plan commission, create a comprehensive plan, subdivide land, and so forth. Assuming village powers is done through the adoption of a resolution, which can be decided in a special or annual town meeting. This resolution can subsequently be rescinded in the same manner. The Town of Somers is a perfect example of this, as it already had a plan commission in place – evidence that they had adopted village powers prior to last week’s decision to incorporate – the very scenario that led to the water cooler discussion here at the Forum.

In summary, there are distinct differences and trade-offs between town, village, and city governments. On the one hand, towns offer a much more direct form of democracy for their residents. On the other hand, villages and cities have more autonomy in terms of forming the structure of their local government. The local context is important in understanding how decisions are made, by whom, and the scope of authority within which the municipality operates. 

Kari Smith