Declining state aid under Scott Walker left municipalities with tough budget decisions. Police departments have faced cuts.

A report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum found more than 250 municipalities cut their police budgets well before “defunding the police” became a national debate in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.

The report, published on Wednesday found that 253 municipalities reduced their police budgets in 2018 and 2019 in all but 10 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. On the flip side, 461 municipalities increased their police budgets, including Madison ($2.2 million), West Allis ($1.7 million), and Racine ($1.5 million). 

The mixed bag of increased and decreased police spending indicates that these decisions are not based on politics but on fiscal realities, according to the report.

“Wisconsin municipalities have been operating under strict property tax limits for more than a decade and intergovernmental revenue—primarily aid from the state—has also declined as a share of overall municipal revenue over that period,” the report read. “These constraints on the growth of property taxes and state aid likely have contributed to the difficulties faced by municipalities in maintaining police and fire department budgets and staffing.”

The report comes after Republican legislators passed a bill that would have decreased state aid to municipalities that cut police funding. Gov. Tony Evers vetoed it.

Minority Caucus Chair Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said he’s not surprised by the report’s findings. He was an alderman on the Beloit City Council when the state’s current municipal funding formula was implemented. 

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He saw first-hand how the Republican-led Legislature squeezed municipalities by making them rely on state funding, which dropped significantly under former Gov. Scott Walker and has since remained stagnant, forcing local governments to make difficult decisions. 

Since 2011, municipalities have only been able to raise property taxes if there’s been new construction;the state was then supposed to counter those restrictions with shared revenue. The intention was to keep property taxes low, but it doesn’t take into account rising costs, particularly employees’ wages and health insurance. 

“Most of the other departments beyond police and fire and public works are really lean, maybe a couple of people in a city the size of Beloit, and there’s really nothing there to cut,” Spreitzer said. “Unless you want to cut those handful of public facilities, usually in a parks and rec department and say, ‘Well, I guess we just don’t have a municipal swimming pool anymore,’ there’s really no nowhere to go.”

Now, after a decade of employing every tool in the toolbox to trim the fat and balance their budgets, municipalities are running out of options and have had to make tough decisions.

“I’ve seen how those local elected officials, including myself, were having to bear the brunt of being the deliverers of the bad news that those cuts had to be made even though the reason for the cuts was state legislators,” Spreitzer said. “And they passed the buck down to local elected officials who then had to do their dirty work for them.”

When Republicans in the Assembly tried to tie cuts to police budgets with leftist politics, Spreitzer countered that if anyone is “defunding the police,” it’s Wisconsin’s Republicans. 

“It really is disingenuous to bring forward a bill that is aimed at this very political conversation about defunding the police when the reality is the vast majority of municipalities are trying to just fund the basic level of services, including the police, and are relying on limited state funding to be able to do that,” Spreitzer said. “If Republican legislators had talked to the municipalities that they represent, they would have known that this was the case.”

Spreitzer agrees with keeping property taxes low but says municipalities need either adequate funding from the state or other avenues for revenue that they can control. But he’s skeptical that, even with this latest report, anything will be done to resolve the issues, especially considering the state had a $4.4 billion surplus going into the 2021-23 state budget session, that Republican legislators decided to use primarily on tax cuts.

“We could have used that surplus to increase funding for municipalities to help keep up with the inflation that we’re seeing but that’s not what happened,” Spreitzer said. “We missed that opportunity. And I don’t know when that opportunity will come again.”