News Column

Planning group grabs 76% tax increase in move called 'bold' and 'illegal'

July 17, 2014

By Steven Verburg, The Wisconsin State Journal

July 17--Ignoring its own bylaws and the wishes of top local politicians, a controversial regional planning commission has laid claim to a 76 percent increase in its share of Dane County property tax revenues for 2015.

The County Board will vote Thursday on whether to fight the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission as it did in 2011, when it persuaded arbitrators to reduce a 19 percent increase sought by the agency.

The planning commission chair said the bold bid to take $1.3 million in taxes next year was necessary to save vital services that are on the verge of collapse because of years of underfunding.

"The commission hasn't taken such a strong action since its inception," said Madison Ald. Larry Palm, who is chairman of the 13-member governing panel for the planning agency. "Maybe it's sort of a brave new world."

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi expressed astonishment and said the commission illegally overrode the wishes of a budget panel that had set the agency's tax take just slightly higher than this year's $748,200.

"The ($570,200) levy increase CARPC expects from our taxpayers next year could otherwise fund the hiring of eight new 911 dispatchers, child protective services workers, or highway workers," Parisi said in a letter sent Tuesday to the county board.

State levy limits may prevent the county from simply increasing the taxes it collects to cover the increase, Parisi said.

"This action was not only illegal, it was irresponsible and, quite frankly, insulting," Parisi wrote in an email to commission members.

Peter McKeever, a Parisi appointee to the commission, argued for the increase, saying it was needed to update a major planning document and to hire two employees, including an executive director, which the agency has never had. A small portion of the money would close a budget deficit, provide modest pay raises and pay for accounting services.

Rocky history

The Capital Area Regional Planning Commission was created in 2007 to protect natural resources and guide orderly development. Dane County municipalities petitioned for it under state law. Then-Gov. Jim Doyle issued an executive order forming the agency.

The agency is best known for its controversial work advising the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on proposed sewer line extensions that allow municipalities to grow.

Twice in recent years, municipalities have said the agency went too far in efforts to limit suburban sprawl and protect stream water quality. In both cases, the DNR sided with the municipalities.

The agency does other planning, statistical analysis and mapping, and it functions as a place where local governments can work out differences without going to court.

Four of the commission's 13 members are appointed by the mayor of Madison. Three each are appointed by the county executive, the Dane County Towns Association and the Dane County Cities and Villages Association.

The 8-3 vote for the tax increase took place July 10. Two members were absent, but there was support from representatives of each of the four appointing authorities, Palm said.

Budget panel

Until the tax vote, the commission followed budget and tax limits set annually by a separate body, the Budget and Personnel Panel. Commission bylaws call for the panel to be made up of the county executive, the Madison mayor and the leaders of the two municipal associations. The budget panel was also described in resolutions passed by local governments requesting creation of the agency.

The idea was to have elected officials who could rein in spending by appointed commission members, said Mark Hazelbaker, a towns association attorney who wrote the language.

He said town leaders, who dissolved a previous planning commission in 2002 and who have discussed terminating this one, are not happy with the commission's tax vote.

Palm and Hazelbaker disagreed on whether the commission could overrule the budget panel, which isn't named explicitly in Doyle's order.

Forbes McIntosh, a spokesman for the cities and villages association, said his members were sympathetic to the agency's financial woes. He said $570,000 was a drop in the ocean of the county's $550 million budget.

The owner of an average Madison home will pay $3.62 this year for the planning commission. That cost would go up to $6.38 next year if the commission's proposal stands.

Working under current constraints, the agency has spent its reserves and is on the verge of losing talented, underpaid staff and dropping important services, Palm said. The commission was forced to act decisively on the tax issue, he said.

"It's a bold action to reclaim the commission, and to make it useful and viable and something the community would also find useful," Palm said.


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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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