To start, school district considers 10% hike

But tax picture likely to change in the end

May 28, 2010

Property taxes would jump about 10 percent next year under the Wauwatosa School District's preliminary 2010-11 budget, but officials hope to see that number drop as planning continues.

John Mack, the district's director of business services, said state aid amounts won't be finalized until later in the year, but he's optimistic that, in the end, the tax levy will only increase between 5 and 7 percent.

"This is really another year where things are very unclear what's happening, especially at the state level," he said.

The proposed budget calls for a $46.4 million property tax levy to support an $82.3 million budget. The levy would increase 9.94 percent, or $4.2 million, over last year's levy of $42.2 million. That is the maximum levy increase allowed under state revenue cap laws.

Overall, the tax rate would increase from $7.92 per $1,000 of equalized value in 2009-10 to $8.71 per $1,000 for 2010-11. That rate assumes home values in the district will not increase, Mack said.

Board discomfort

The proposed hike was generally ill-received by the School Board.

Board member Phil Kroner said he is concerned about raising taxes given persistent economic pressures on district taxpayers. He also questioned whether more could be done to limit spending.

"A lot of our citizens are having to make cuts in their own budgets," he said. "I'm concerned that not enough effort was made in looking for cuts to try to hold things as low as possible or even to spend less than the levy (limit) is allowing."

Handcuffed by revenue losses

Superintendent Phil Ertl assured the board that he, Mack and other administrators pored over the budget line by line in a "painstaking process" to ensure efficiency.

Mack said the tax increase is caused entirely by state reductions in school funding and is therefore out of the district's control.

The district is facing a $2.97 million - or 11.4 percent - cut in state aid.

"I think that tells the story right there," Mack said of the numbers.

When the state sets the revenue cap - the total amount of tax and aid revenue a district is permitted to gather - but then reduces aid, that funding hole must be filled by property taxes, Mack said.

"I think the misconception that exists out there is that school districts control their levy, and they really do not," he said.

The danger of too-deep cuts

There is one alternative to the tax hike: Wauwatosa could cut its budget and levy less than the maximum permitted amount. However, the district would lose that portion of its revenue cap forever, Mack said, and any cuts would be painful.

"We could levy less and cut our budget, but that would probably mean cutting not only a great deal of support staff, but a lot of teachers, too, which would only increase class sizes," Mack said. "So there's a direct tradeoff there."

Board member Michael Meier asked how a spending freeze might impact the levy. Mack said that would help, but only a little.

"Even if you froze the budget you'd have a huge tax levy increase," he said, estimating that a no-increase budget could limit the tax hike to 7 or 8 percent instead of 10.

Slightly higher spending

Despite the near-double digit tax increase, Wauwatosa will only increase spending by 1.2 percent, or $987,000, from $81.3 million this fiscal year. And if the district's $2 million in federal stimulus funding were removed from the budget, spending would actually decrease from last year, Mack pointed out.

Board member Mary Jo Randall said the tax increase is easier to accept given that it isn't caused by increased district spending.

Even so, district taxpayers will still feel the impact. Board member Sharon Muehlfeld said she has already heard from concerned constituents worried about the effect of tax increases when combined with other rising costs. Muehlfeld said she's looking forward to hearing more from district residents during a June 14 public hearing on the budget.

"I will be very interested to hear from our citizens at the hearing. … I do think we should be prepared for a very strong reaction, especially in this economic climate," she said.

By the numbers

$42.2 million

school district's 2009 tax levy

$46.4 million

2010 levy under preliminary budget


increase in levy


WHAT: public hearing and expected School Board action on the proposed 2010-11 budget

WHEN: 7 p.m. June 12

WHERE: Fisher Building, 12121 W. North Ave.



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