TOWN QUICK FACTS

 

“TOWN”:  A “Town” is a form of local government.  A “township” is a geographic surveyor’s unit measuring six by six miles square.  Many towns, but far from all, have roughly the dimensions of a township.

 

CITIZENS:  1,709,491 Wisconsinites live in a town, or 30.1% of the state’s population.

 

LAND AREA:  95% of Wisconsin’s land area is within a town.

 

TRANSPORTATION:  Towns maintain 61,996 miles of town highways.  That is approximately half of the 112,362 miles of public highways of all types (federal, state, county, city, village and town) located within the State of Wisconsin

 

GOVERNANCE:  An elected town board composed of a chairperson and 2-4 supervisors; an elected or appointed clerk and treasurer or combined office of clerk-treasurer; some towns also choose to have additional elected officers, such as a constable or elected property tax assessor and some towns retain a deputy clerk, treasurer or clerk-treasurer.

 

SERVICES:  All towns must:  operate local polling places for elections; conduct property tax assessment, dispute procedures, billing and collection; ensure fire protection and ambulance service; ensure that there is a recycling program; and maintain town highways.  Many towns also choose to provide additional services at the local level such as garbage collection, land use regulation and law enforcement, etc. 

 

DIRECT DEMOCRACY:  Towns are the only form of government in Wisconsin, as well as most of the world, where citizens have the ability to self-govern to the degree of directly voting for their own property tax rate, among other things. 

 

CREATION:  Wisconsin Constitution, Article IV, Section 23.

 

More Details

Towns are created by the Wisconsin Constitution to provide basic municipal government services, such as elections, property tax administration (towns collect taxes for counties, schools and other governments, as well as for their own budgets), road construction and maintenance, recycling, emergency medical services and fire protection. Some towns also offer law enforcement, solid waste collection, zoning and other services. Town governments in Wisconsin provide these general government services to 1,709,491 residents (30.1% of total state population).  Ninety-five percent (95%) of the land area in Wisconsin is within towns. Towns maintain 61,996 miles of town highways.

The town form of government was brought into Wisconsin from New England in territorial days.  Thus, Wisconsin towns have deep and uniquely American roots.

Legal Framework of Towns: Towns are "general purpose" local governments, which means that they provide basic services used daily by all residents (Wisconsin also has "special purpose" governments that offer more targeted services, such as school districts).  The major duties and powers of all towns are spelled out in Article IV, Section 23 of the Wisconsin Constitution, Ch. 60 of the Wisconsin Statutes (which pertains specifically to town governments) and Ch. 66 of the Wisconsin Statutes (which applies to towns, villages and cities).

Two Forms: Wisconsin actually has two forms of general purpose local governments: a county form of 72 counties and a municipal form of some 1,851 municipalities.  Wisconsin also has three distinct types of municipalities: 1,259 towns, 402 villages and 190 cities.  Counties cover the entire area of the state and are primarily responsible for providing human services.  However, there is also some overlap with municipalities.   For example, both counties and municipalities maintain their own respective highways.

Municipalities:  In some respects, towns operate like cities and villages, but in other ways they are quite different.  They are similar in the sense that they provide many of the same services as cities and villages, but they are organized and governed in a different manner. The major distinguishing feature of towns is the fact that they continue to operate as a "direct democracy."  State law requires towns to hold "town meetings" where all qualified electors who are age 18 or older and have lived in the town for at least ten days can discuss and vote on town matters, including the town's property tax levy.  This means that the electors of the town have more direct control over their most local government issues than their cousins living in cities and villages (where major decisions are made by elected representatives).  Towns also tend to dove-tail their services with counties to a greater extent than cities and villages.

Town Government:  The day-to-day administrative issues of each town are handled by an elected town board, consisting of three or five members.  Town boards are elected for two-year terms in spring elections of odd-numbered years.   Towns are also served by a clerk and treasurer (or combined clerk-treasurer) and can have an appointed town administrator. 

Direct Democracy: Wisconsin’s 1,259 towns are among the last vestiges of direct democracy in America (or anyplace else). Did you know that town residents actually get to discuss and then vote on their own municipal property tax levy every year at an annual town budget meeting? Democracy doesn’t get much more direct than that. This unique tradition of direct citizen involvement may help explain why towns are so good at keeping spending and property tax levies down. It may also explain why town residents often vigorously fight forced annexations into neighboring cities.

More About Towns: Wisconsin has 1,259 towns, which govern all parts of the state that are not included within the corporate boundaries of cities and villages. The terms "town" and "township" are sometimes used interchangeably.  But in Wisconsin, the words are not identical.  The word "town" denotes a unit of government while "township" is a surveyor's term describing the basic grid framework for legal descriptions of all land in the state (including land in cities and villages).  Originally, most towns (and townships) were six mile by six mile squares (36 square miles), but natural and man-made boundaries (rivers and county lines, for example) caused some variation.  Annexation of town lands into cities and villages have eroded some towns to a fraction of their original size. The Town of Germantown (Washington County) is the smallest town in the state at 1.7 square miles.

The 1997-98 Wisconsin Blue Book, published by the Legislative Reference Bureau, includes a feature article about the structure of local government in Wisconsin, including town government. 

All Wisconsin towns, regardless of size, remain the most pure form of democracy in this state.

Yet towns are sometimes cast as the poor cousins of Wisconsin's local government family.  In fact, cities and villages do get more money and power from the state -- including the power to annex parts of neighboring towns. The annexation process poses obvious problems for towns, but the real damage is the poisonous effect annexations, or the threat of annexations, have on intergovernmental relations. Because of Wisconsin's archaic annexation laws, neighboring governments are involved in frequent turf battles that undercut sound regional planning and efficient service delivery.

Another impact of the state's ongoing annexation battles is the negative picture pro-annexation advocates sometimes paint of town government.  To help promote annexations, towns are sometimes described as inefficient, self-serving institutions that just do not fit into the modern world.  Ironically, pro-annexation leaders even criticize towns on the grounds that they have irregular borders -- even though these self-same borders are the result of past, ill-considered annexations.

In this context, it is important to focus occasionally on the many reasons why townspeople across Wisconsin are working so hard to preserve the town form of government.  Here are some of the reasons:

Grassroots Heritage: At a time when virtually all levels of government, from Washington to the local school board, have become remote and bureaucratic, it is comforting to note that 1.7 million Wisconsin residents (roughly a third of the state) still live in towns that thrive on citizen participation and direct democracy.

Towns Focus on Nuts-and-Bolts Services: Town residents have a local government that is focused on basic public services like road maintenance, fire protection, snow plowing, building permits and lots of other services that people depend on every day.  They know that towns are a lot like the corner hardware store -- places where Americans can still go to find people who are reasonable and knowledgeable, but rarely pretentious.

Towns Remain Simple in an Age of Complexity:  Historically, towns were reliable and efficient building blocks in the development of Wisconsin.  Today, they use modern tools to deliver public services, but they remain structurally simple and accountable, with a town board, a handful of advisory committees and town employees. Citizens get results because there's simply no place to hide in a town hall.

Towns Are Thrifty:  Of the $66.4 billion in federal, state and local taxes paid by Wisconsin taxpayers in 2007, less than $350 million was levied by towns, which means that for every $1 of taxes paid by Wisconsin taxpayers in 2007, only about half-a-cent went to towns. Table One shows that towns are remarkably thrifty. For example, town taxes amounted to only $206 per capita and indebtedness was only $191 per resident. While towns differ in key respects from cities and villages, all provide essential municipal services (to 95% of the state’s landmass and 30% of its population in the case of towns). 

 

Table One: 2007 Per Capita Municipal Revenues, Expenditures & Debt1

 

Cities

Villages

Towns

Revenues ($ Per Resident)

Taxes

575

567

206

Intergovernmental Aids

365

189

141

Other Revenues2

584

462

84

Total General Revenues2

1,524

1,218

431

Expenditures & Debt ($ Per Resident)

General Administration

138

126

71

Public Safety

444

309

81

Sanitation/Transportation

485

481

232

Other Expenditures3

644

426

79

Total General Expenditures3

1,711

1,423

461

General Obligation Debt

1,224

1,521

191

1Columns may not sum due to rounding; 2Excludes long term debt & utility revenues; 3Excludes utility operations
Source: Wisconsin Department of Revenue, County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures - 2007
 

Towns Thrive on Volunteerism:  Part of the reason towns operate so efficiently is the huge amount of service offered by volunteers.  The Town Volunteer Fire Department is more than a proud part of our heritage -- with modern equipment and skills, volunteers still play a vital role in town government.

Towns Are the Last Refuge of Direct Democracy: Long before national politicians started holding "town meetings" towns had been meeting for generations.  We still hold real town meetings -- the kind where town residents themselves help set the agenda and discuss issues as a community.  The kind where every elector who has lived in the town for more than 10 days is welcome.  The kind where taxpayers actually get to vote on their own property tax rate.  We think that alone makes the town form of government worth saving.

Towns Are a Good Match with Counties:  Town and county governments work together to deliver basic services efficiently.  Towns focus on local services and allow counties to deliver more regional-scale services. Cities and villages are much more independent.  Some big cities blur the distinction between "local" and "regional" governmental roles by trying to be both. They will even justify their efforts to annex urban towns out of existence on the grounds that they can deliver critical public service on a more regional (and, presumably, more efficient) scale. But if bigger is better, then why not just shift all of these services to the county level of government? After all, aren't counties bigger than even the largest central cities?  The point is that towns may actually offer a better municipal/county governance model for the 21st Century than the "central city" approach that became so popular in the last century. The town/county relationship simply makes sense:  towns focus on local services (such as building and maintaining town roads) and counties focus on regional services (such as building and maintaining county highways). There are some major problems with the state laws that regulate the county/town relationship, but the basic idea is sound.  The real key to high quality, efficient services in the future is governments working together in a coordinated and fair effort to serve mutual constituents.

Towns may be cast as local government's black sheep by the unknowledgeable, but their unique attributes make them worth preserving.  Far from annexing towns off the map, Wisconsin should be idealizing and drawing strength from this simple but effective form of government.  There will always be BIG GOVERNMENT -- lets hope there will always be small towns too.

(updated 4/16/09)