Study Committees show challenges ahead for rural areas


Three of the Legislative Study committees this interim, when overlapped, show challenges ahead for rural committees of Wisconsin.

The Study Committee on School Data’s first meeting started with a presentation by Jeff Pertl from the Department of Public Instruction. According to Pertl’s presentation:

  • In many rural school districts more than half the students are eligible for free-and-reduced lunch.
  • In 2001, 1/3rd of school districts were in declining enrollment, by 2012, over 2/3rds of school districts were in declining enrollment. Today, 75% of all WI K-12 students are located in 30% of the school districts.
  • As students have moved to more urban and suburban areas, the poverty levels at the rural schools have increased.

The Study Committee on Rural Broadband met early in August and committee members were told by presenters that lack of adequate broadband for rural areas is having, and will continue to have, an impact on rural community’s ability to attract and retain residents and businesses. One member of the committee said that a question realtors are regularly asked is what the internet speed is for houses they are looking at.  The member said a lot of people won’t even consider looking at a house if there isn’t good internet.  Additionally, Sen. Marklein asked one presenter if there needed to be an increase in demand or an increase in supply; the presenter was clear that without increased supply there wouldn’t be an increase in demand.

The Study Committee on Volunteer Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician Shortages meet in July and committee member discussions centered on how fewer people are moving into rural areas, and more people are moving out.  The members talked about individuals getting training as volunteers for rural departments then moving to urban areas to take paid full-time positions. Members discussed how fewer people are doing more for their communities and leaving little time for more volunteering.

The League of Municipalities hired the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance to study the effects of state governmental decisions on Wisconsin’s 601 cities and villages. In the August edition of The Municipality Todd Berry gave a preview of the report:

  • Wisconsin relies heavily on the property tax. Of $4.8 billion in city-village revenue, 57% was from levies.
  • Wisconsin property taxes have increased 5.2% from 2011 to 2014.
  • Debt service has increased from 14.4% in 2000, to 19.6% in 2009, to 25.7% in 2012.
  • In larger municipalities, where most Wisconsinites reside, job growth is occurring and civic engagement exists.
  • In small communities, job trends are weak and civic health is low.

The Wheeler Report talked with Curt Witynski, Assistant Director at the League of Municipalities, to better understand the study committee relationships to rural Wisconsin. Witynski said The League membership ranges from Milwaukee, with over 600,000 people, to a village with 90 people. The median size community in the League is about 1450 people. There are roughly 600 villages and cities in the state, and most of the members are under 2000 in population. Witynski said those smaller communities are the ones that are being hurt by what appears to be a migration to the urban areas. Witynski said Wisconsin is not unique in the rural to urban migration, highlighting that more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas. Witynski said in Wisconsin, 70% of the population lives in incorporated areas, and about 30% live in towns. Witynski highlighted that in communities with 10,000 people or more, they are attracting people, businesses, and becoming the centers of employment and cultural centers. Witynski said the smaller communities are struggling to determine how to attract people to their communities to visit or to live.

Reduced civic engagement is an issue that Witynski said most communities outside of a metro area are facing. Witynski said if there are fewer people in a community to fill positions, whether volunteer or elected positions, those people get stretched further and further and can do less and less.

Witynski said the preview of the WISTAX report shows that larger communities are maintaining, but smaller communities are showing initial signs of stress. Witynski said in a vast percentage of the state, there isn’t new growth and expansion of their tax base. The result has been smaller communities borrowing more, and there are delays beginning in street maintenance. Witynski questioned whether smaller communities will begin using referendums, like school districts, to fill gaps in budgets. Witynski said since 2005, roughly 25 referenda have passed in cities, villages or counties.

Witynski said transportation is one issue that has brought everyone in for discussion, regardless of the size of the community. Witynski said all of the League’s membership is concerned about the state of the transportation fund. Witynski highlighted that about 30% of the transportation fund goes to local government, but that dollar amount has been decreasing. Witynski said the 2011 cut of $20 million to the cities and villages hit League members hard, and they haven’t recovered yet.

“There are some sparkling examples of some communities that have intentionally focused on creating the amenities that will draw people to their communities.” Witynski said.  He highlighted Pelosi and how the brewery has brought the community together, turned things around, and the community is now thriving.  He highlighted Thorp, and the award-winning cheese factory. He highlighted Edgerton and the new condominiums that were built in the old tobacco warehouses which has brought people back downtown.

Witynski concluded by saying Wisconsin has challenges in both demographics and migration from rural to urban which seems to be shown in the DPI presentation. Witynski said those communities that create amenities and quality of life opportunities will thrive, but those that do not will struggle. Witynski said there is a clear role for government in that, and it is the League’s job to help provide the tools, resources and advocate for municipalities.  He said the League is there to help communities and government to work with the private sector to create that quality community.