School property taxes across Wisconsin are rising by more than $220 million on December 2019 tax bills, which suggests—when combined with increases in county and technical college district levies—that Wisconsin residents could see their largest property tax increase in a decade, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The higher school levies come as state limits on school revenues are being raised for the first time since 2014-15.
The rise reflects changes in the state budget, as well as recent referenda passed by voters in many individual districts to exceed state-imposed revenue limits.
The tax data come from the state Department of Revenue (DOR) and include the levies reported by counties, technical colleges, and school districts, which together account for roughly two-thirds of all property taxes in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin school districts levied $5.21 billion in 2019-20 property taxes, a 4.5% increase over a $4.99 billion levy in 2018-19. This represents the first time school taxes rose by more than 2% since 2015-2016, and is the highest since a 6% increase in 2009-10.
After a decade of relatively tight funding, education advocates may cheer the 2019-20 increase in resources for schools and point out that recent economic gains mean Wisconsin residents are better able to pay for it. Critics may see the increase as contributing to higher taxes overall and Wisconsin’s reliance on property taxes to fund local services.
Marquette Law School polling shows voters in the state have favored “increasing spending on public schools” over “reducing property taxes” in eight separate polls taken since 2015—including seven taken since 2018—after favoring lower property taxes in two 2013 polls.
Just eight of the state’s 421 districts account for more than 1/3 of the $224 million increase this year. Five of the districts with the largest dollar increases in taxes—Madison Metropolitan, Sun Prairie, Middleton-Cross Plains, DeForest, and Verona—are located in Dane County.
This analysis looks only at gross property tax levies, meaning state tax credits that buy down the property tax— the School Levy, Lottery, and First Dollar credits—have not yet been factored in. The first two credits are essentially at in the state budget but the lottery credit is budgeted for a substantial increase.
Additionally, municipal property tax levies, as well as tax increment and special districts, have not been factored into this analysis since data on them is not yet available. That said, there is reason to believe that Wisconsinites will see the largest overall property tax increase in a decade this year. This is in part a reminder that local governments in the state rely heavily on the property taxes.