Town government has a long history in Wisconsin, brought to the state by New Englanders in the early 19th century. In most states, the unit of government is referred to as a township; however, in several states, including Wisconsin, the form of government is a “town”. In the badger state, a “township” is only the surveying unit that is typically a six-mile by six-mile square.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his early 1800s analysis of the American experiment, referred to town government as “constituted as to excite the warmest of human affections without arousing the ambitious passion of the heart of man”. His statement is just as true two centuries removed. Town officials apply common sense leadership and practical solutions to everyday local situations without the politics, dangerous passions, and partisanship that can envelop bigger, bureaucratic government. In fact, town government has components of direct democracy where the people vote on decisions directly at a town meeting. Approving the tax levy is one of the powers directly allocated to the people. This certainly impacts the fact that towns are the most frugal and efficient form of government in Wisconsin. No other form of government is as connected to the people as town government, where the people govern themselves and unleash the potential of democracy.
Town government is created by Article IV, Section 23 of the Wisconsin Constitution. Chapter 60 of the state statutes applies specifically to towns. Unlike the organization of cities and villages, town are unincorporated and can only implement those functions specifically authorized by state law. Cities and villages have home rule power and have greater flexibility to govern themselves. Towns may adopt village powers, relating to villages and conferred on village boards under Chapter 61, except those powers which conflict with statutes relating to towns and town boards.
The state’s 1250 towns provide fundamental services to about 95% of Wisconsin’s geography and 30% of its population. All towns administer elections; conduct property tax assessment, dispute procedures, billing and collection; ensure fire protection and ambulance service; provide for a recycling program; and maintain town roads. Many towns also choose to provide additional services, such as, garbage collection, land use management, economic development, law enforcement, etc.
Towns are responsible for 61,673 miles of roads, over half of Wisconsin’s highways. Town roads perform the critical function of being the “first” and “last” mile of the state’s economy. Unfortunately, despite being responsible for about 54% of the roads, towns receive less than 5% of the road funding in the state. In fact, in 2015 towns were on a road replacement cycle of 371 years, meaning a road, on average, would be rebuilt about every 4 centuries. This dilemma is proving to be a significant threat to the economy.
Towns are a general purpose unit of government, providing a broad array of services. Juxtaposed is a special purpose unit of government that provides a single type of service, such as, a school district that provides for education within their boundaries. Day to day provision of town services is governed by an elected town board, comprised of a town chairperson and two to four supervisors. The board is supported by 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. Some also appoint an administrator, deputy clerk, deputy treasurer, or deputy clerk-treasurer. In a political environment in which decision making is becoming more remote and being thrust upon citizens by far away lawmakers and bureaucrats, it is refreshing to know that grassroots local leadership remains strong in town government throughout Wisconsin.