Like the rest of the upper Midwest, Wisconsin has an unusually high number of local governments, according to new figures confirming a longstanding trend. Should there be more shared delivery of services across local boundaries or even government consolidation, or are Wisconsin’s governments baked into the identity of the state?
The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its 2017 Census of Governments, a survey taken every five years to document local governments around the nation. According to the census, Wisconsin has 3,096 governments, the 11th-most in the country.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s local governments are “general purpose”: counties (72), cities and villages (601), and towns (1,251). The remaining governments consist of 438 school and technical college districts as well as 734 “special district governments,” which vary from the taxing district used to finance the construction of Miller Park to city electric utilities and lake districts. Wisconsin has gained almost 700 local governments since the mid-1970s.
The Census uses three criteria to determine if an entity counts as a government. First, the entity must possess some organization and corporate powers. A government must also provide public services and have both fiscal and administrative independence.
Many factors, such as a large population, can explain why a state might have a high number of governments. That said, even when accounting for population, Wisconsin is among the states with the most governments. The state ranks 15th in the nation at about 53 governments per 100,000 people. To gain insight into why that is the case, it is important to understand the history of the state back to its founding.
How We Got Here
For most of the United States, the structure of local government can be traced all the way back to the settlement of each state. Many Wisconsin settlers came from New England as well as a mix of northern European and Scandinavian backgrounds, with some arguing it produced a culture that emphasized communal morals and strong government over individual freedom. This contrasts with regions like the deep south and the Appalachian Mountains, in which government was viewed more skeptically. Many of the larger states across the upper Midwest and northeast rank highly today in terms of number of governments, including Illinois (first), Pennsylvania (third), Ohio (fifth), Minnesota (eighth), New York (ninth), Wisconsin (11th), and Michigan (12th).
The state’s settlement pattern also contributed to its numerous governments. Wisconsin, like most of the rest of the upper Midwest, was established under the guidelines of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which implemented a “township” form of government outlined by the Land Ordinance written two years before. The state was broken up into six-square-mile boxes, which laid the groundwork for the nearly 2,000 town and municipal governments the state has today.
A critical component of each township upon its establishment was education. Each six-square-mile box was split into 36 equal parcels; revenue from “lot 16” was to be designated to support public schools within that township. With a dedicated parcel of land set aside in towns across the state to help with funding, schools popped up in every corner of Wisconsin. In the 1942 Census of Governments—the first for which we have data—the state had more than 6,500 school districts. At the time, that far outnumbered all other types of governments in the state combined, and represented more than double the amount of total local governments in Wisconsin today.
Since 1942, little has changed in terms of the number of general purpose governments: Wisconsin has 20 fewer towns than it did in 1942, but 86 more municipalities. Also, one county (Menominee) became an official local government in the same time span. However, two types of governments have changed significantly.
First, the number of school districts in the state decreased sharply—from 6,569 in 1942 to 417 in 1972. When Wisconsin was established, most of its citizens lived in rural areas and schools had to be widespread to allow children living in those areas to get to class by foot. However, according to the 1979-80 Wisconsin Blue Book, “The public school system was drastically changed after World War II.” Rural schools—many of which were limited to one room and one teacher—began to fall behind in their capacity to educate students. In the mid-1940s, nearly 6,000 school districts had no high school, and were either “non-operating” (meaning the district collected revenue to send all students elsewhere) or had just a one-room school.
Legislation was quickly adopted to change this structure. In 1959, the state passed a law mandating that all state territory had to be located within a district with an operating high school by mid-1962. By 1972, no districts were deemed “non-operating” or limited to one room. According to the 1979-80 Blue Book, the effect was striking in highly rural counties: “Grant County dropped from more than 200 districts in 1937 to 11 in 1976, Forest from 17 to 3.”
The other significant change in Wisconsin has been the gradual increase in the amount of “special district” governments over time. The state had fewer than 100 special district governments until the mid-1970s; in 2017, it had 734. This shift was largely driven by the increasing number of lake, sanitary, and sewerage districts throughout the state.
According to a 1989 article in the academic journal “Lake and Reservoir Management,” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the University of Wisconsin-Extension embarked on the Inland Lake Demonstration Project to focus public attention and resources on the state’s lakes. The project concluded that existing state and local governments were unlikely to devote critical attention to Wisconsin lakes, which led to the adoption of legislation in 1974 to allow the establishment of lake districts. Since that time, lake districts have been given the power to impose a relatively small property tax, as well as assessments for dedicated projects and charges for services.
The impact of these decisions built over time. Driven in part by the creation of lake and sewerage districts, between 1992 and 1997 the number of special district governments in Wisconsin increased from 377 to 696.
The growing number of local governments elicited concern from citizens and government officials. A 2002 report from the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) cites 12 distinct commissions spanning the second half of the 20th century that studied enhanced intergovernmental cooperation (ranging from basic service sharing to full-scale consolidation) as a potential mechanism for reducing the number of governments or better managing the fiscal consequences.
In line with this concern, the “Wisconsin Blue-Ribbon Commission on State-Local Partnerships for the 21st Century”—more commonly known as the Kettl Commission after its chairman, then UW-Madison professor Donald Kettl—published a report urging a series of reforms in 2001. Yet instead of supporting the outright elimination of local governments, the report argued for greater use of performance metrics to ensure government efficiency and accountability, as well as efforts to define the specific roles and responsibilities of the various levels of government. The Commission essentially argued that greater intergovernmental cooperation, equalization, and service sharing—and not abolition—was the best solution to the state’s perceived surplus of governments.
Local Governments & Schools
Wisconsin has 1,924 “general purpose” governments, which include 72 counties, 601 cities and villages, and 1,251 towns. In addition, the state has 438 public independent school districts: 422 public school districts and 16 technical college districts. All Wisconsin residents live within the boundaries of at least six governments with the power to tax them: the federal and state governments, a town or municipality, a county, a school district, and a technical college district.
As mentioned previously, history and regional trends played a large part in how states structured their local governments. Each of seven upper Midwestern states—Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa—ranks similarly in both their total and per capita number of governments for each type.
Though Wisconsin’s 438 public school districts are relatively high—11th most, the same as their overall ranking—they remain in line with other upper Midwest states, such as Illinois (886), Ohio (666), Michigan (571), Iowa (348), and Minnesota (333). The vast majority of Wisconsin’s public school districts include all grades from kindergarten to 12th. That said, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction, there were 43 K-8 districts and 10 “Union High School” districts (which only contain grades 9-12) in the 2018-19 school year. Unfortunately, we do not have data sources to determine whether Wisconsin’s number of K-8 and 9-12 districts is on the high side nationally, and whether that may be a partial cause of the state’s relatively high rankings in the number of total public school districts.
Where both this state and the rest of the upper Midwest stand out is in their large numbers of municipal governments. Wisconsin’s 601 cities and villages are the 9th-highest total in the country (Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Minnesota all have more). Even more distinct are the state’s 1,251 towns. Only 20 states—all in the Northeast, Midwest, or Great Plains—recognize towns or townships as governments; of those, Wisconsin ranks seventh for most towns.
The different types of general purpose governments in Wisconsin are distinguished both by how they collect revenue and their main responsibilities. Primary responsibilities of counties include certain public safety and legal matters (i.e. circuit courts and jails) and health and social services. They are often referred to as “an arm of the state” given their role in providing these state-mandated services at the local level on the state’s behalf.
Wisconsin’s cities and villages differ from counties in that they are granted “home rule” under the state constitution, meaning they have the “broad authority…to govern themselves locally.” Home rule gives cities and villages greater ability to govern themselves in areas that are not specifically addressed by state law. Most cities and villages provide a broad range of public services not handled by state government or specifically assigned to counties, such as police, fire and emergency medical services, water, sewers, libraries, parks, and more. The great majority of Wisconsin’s citizens, hospitals, UW System campuses, and commercial property are located within cities and villages.
Towns do not possess home rule authority and they are only empowered to perform functions specifically authorized by state law. Road and highway maintenance are at the forefront of responsibilities for most towns, which means that state and federal transportation aids make up a large portion of town revenue.
Census data show just four of the 86 municipalities with a population above 10,000 in Wisconsin are towns; the average populations of cities (16,342) and villages (2,054) are significantly larger than those of towns (1,340).
The other major difference separating towns from cities and villages is recognition from the state: cities and villages are considered to be “incorporated,” whereas towns are not. Towns can become a city or village either through the process of incorporation—which includes a petition process, a circuit court review, a potential referendum, and more—or by annexation into a neighboring city or village. For example, the town of Madison is set to be annexed into the city of Madison in 2022 using the latter of these methods.
Special District Governments
The remaining 734 entities that are included in the Census are special district governments. These tend to serve a specific purpose: the majority are sewerage, lake, sanitary, or drainage districts, implemented in the wake of the aforementioned 1974 law. Governments with names like “Liberty Grove Sanitary District,” “Silver Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District,” and “Lower Baraboo River Drainage District” now dot the state. These governments differ slightly in technical terms, but all serve to protect Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers through a dedicated governmental body.
Housing authorities account for another substantial portion of Wisconsin’s special district governments. According to data from Willamette University, there were 167 housing authorities throughout the state in 2012, down from a peak of 200 in 1987. These governmental entities, according to the Wisconsin Association of Housing Authorities, “foster and promote low-rent public housing and other housing programs for low and moderate income families, including elderly and handicapped.”
Outside of housing authorities and districts created to manage Wisconsin’s waters, special district governments are few and far between. A recent addition to the state’s roster of special districts are community-based long-term care districts. These districts provide services to the elderly and disabled at a regional level under the premise that the management of these services over broad geographical areas can produce economies of scale and better services for consumers. Though these districts first showed up in the 2012 Census of Governments, the six that existed at that time managed to both take in and spend more money than all other types of special districts that year—a reflection of the cost of long-term care.
Too Many Governments?
As the Kettl Commission noted in its report, large numbers of governments and boundary lines can complicate service delivery and produce administrative inefficiency. In addition, the high cost of technology and equipment required to deliver certain services—as well as the need for highly-trained staff—can become cost prohibitive for smaller municipalities and can produce additional inefficiency given that the same equipment and staff often can serve broader geographical areas.
These observations—as well as growing financial pressures—have spurred some municipalities to consider consolidating certain services with neighboring municipalities or their county government. In the last eight years alone, at the request of local government leaders, the Wisconsin Policy Forum has studied fire and emergency medical service sharing among three municipalities in Kenosha County (2019), service sharing opportunities between the Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee’s city and county governments (2017), public health service sharing in Oak Creek and South Milwaukee (2017), fire department consolidation in the southern portions of Milwaukee County (2012 and 2013), and consolidated dispatch in Milwaukee County’s South Shore (2012) and the county as a whole (2016). The Forum also quantified the fiscal and program benefits realized by Milwaukee County’s North Shore Fire Department (2015), a consolidated department that serves seven municipalities and has been held up as a national model.
One of the Forum’s predecessors, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, focused on municipal consolidation in at least three separate issues of The Wisconsin Taxpayer (September 1964, November 1970, and July 1979), and has written and consulted on school consolidation at least a dozen times since the 1930s. In 1937, analysts argued that “the excessively small school is an inefficient educational unit…the small school is financially as well as educationally inefficient.”
Concerns also have been raised about the growth of special districts throughout the country. Some argue that the duties of these districts may unnecessarily overlap with those of general purpose governments and that they often do not draw the public oversight associated with more traditional governmental units.
Looking to the Future
Many factors have contributed to Wisconsin’s high number of local governments and their overlapping responsibilities. They range from a history of citizens who have been interested and involved in government to the Northwest Ordinance and the numerous lakes that dot the state.
For nearly a century, concerns have been raised about this system, and they continue today as financial challenges grow for local governments. Citizens are seeking to maintain and improve services as well as hold down property taxes, which remain under some form of state constraint across most local governments. On top of this, state aid is lagging: the Forum’s Municipal DataTool shows that from 2013 to 2017, state shared revenues in cities and villages decreased from $165 to $162 per capita.
These factors raise the question of whether there are too many local government units in the state, or at least too many governments providing the same services. Past decades have seen major changes, such as the sharp drop in the number of school districts. More recently, the 2017 Census shows a small decrease in the number of governments within the state—a reduction of 32 governments since 2012. But as local government and school district fiscal pressures intensify—and as elected leaders and the public seem unwilling to grapple with the prospect of increased revenues or reduced services—further consolidation of local government functions or entire units of local government surfaces as one of the few remaining options.
Examples of service sharing and consolidation range from the North Shore Fire Department to the recent consolidation of public safety dispatch and public health functions at the county level in several jurisdictions across the state. In the case of dispatch, consolidation efforts have been initiated by local officials, while in the case of public health, it was required by a change in state law. This begs the question of whether state government needs to take the lead in encouraging local service sharing or consolidation. Other states have done or proposed doing so by providing carrots, such as a source of funds for consolidation studies; or sticks, such as a reduction in state aids for those local governments or school districts that do not submit or implement plans for sharing or consolidating services (or merging outright) with their neighbors.
Special districts also deserve attention. Though they are less well-known to Wisconsin citizens than school districts or municipal governments, they represent a sizable—and growing—source of spending in the state. Many important public services, such as the management of natural resources like lakes, long-term care, and municipal energy, run largely through these districts that now outnumber all other forms of local government besides towns. Collaboration between special districts and other governments at the local and even state level also might yield savings or improvements in services.
Since the early 20th century, policy-minded officials and citizens alike have expressed strong opinions on the question of the state’s numerous local governments. If nothing else, the publication of the Census of Governments every five years represents a time to reflect on the question, and to consider how state and local leaders might craft legislation or work collaboratively to improve the framework of Wisconsin government.