Will Town of Brookfield Move Set Off Rush to Annex Land?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

There goes the neighborhood.

Residents of the town of Brookfield want to incorporate their little burg into a village. By incorporating, the town will prevent any more annexations by the city of Waukesha and the city of Brookfield.

The move to incorporate comes at a time when a development involving the Van Maur chain will represent a substantial improvement to the town. The development, recently aided by the state allowing the creation of a TIF district in the town, makes the possibility of more annexations by the town’s neighbors even more likely as they attempt to improve their own tax bases.

Bear with me for a moment. There is a city of Waukesha. There is a town of Waukesha. There is a city of Brookfield. And the town of Brookfield touches all of them.

Many moons ago, the Kettl Commission identified one of the problems in Wisconsin is the number of small governmental bodies duplicating services. Too many governments, too many duplicate services, and, unmentioned in the report, too many redundant community names.

Underlying the problem, though, is a very real concern about the quality of life in those small communities, especially the tax rate. We often hear of people voting with their feet when it comes to taxes. In the town of Brookfield they’re voting with permanent borders.

The town of Brookfield has a tax rate of only $3.58 per $1,000 of assessed value. The city of Brookfield, the community most likely to annex much of the town in the near future, has a tax rate of $5.75 per $1,000 assessed value. The City of Waukesha, the other likely annexing community, has the worst property tax rate in the county at $8.94 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Beyond the tax rate, town of Brookfield government is relatively stable financially. According to Jay Walt, the citizen petitioner in this effort, the town has only increased taxes twice in the last eight years. The town is looking forward to paying off its debt in 2012, allowing the new village to invest in infrastructure improvements the money that would have been for debt service.

But what about all of these units of government? Wouldn’t the residents be better off without all of this redundancy?

“Bigger is not better,” Walt said.  Walt said an advantage of living in a community like the town of Brookfield is it’s small nature. He can pick up the phone to talk to the town administrator or anyone else in government and know they’ll be available.

Walt also pointed out that the town of Brookfield already exists, so it’s not like the creation of the village will create a new government unit.

As far as services, Walt said the town of Brookfield has the police, fire and paramedic services at the same level of the city, but at a much lower cost. He also said the town has their own water utility, and the public works department “is second to none.”

With a change to a village, residents will no longer have the ability to vote on the town budget. However, there will still be that small town ability for citizens to be heard.

According to Walt, the decision to incorporate was the “best way to protect the town and its tax rate.”

“I really wanted our community to decide our own future.”

This is the third attempt by the town of Brookfield to incorporate. The previous attempts were defeated because the town did not have enough of a contiguous land area to meet the state’s criteria.

This time the town has figured out a way to include enough territory to meet the state’s minimum requirements. They will annex part of the town of Waukesha, including a portion that is owned by the Wal-Mart corporation. The site of a former Wal-Mart store, it’s being considered for a possible grocery store development.

Which leads to the great irony in this battle for the town of Brookfield independence. The town of Waukesha only has a tax rate of $1.66 per $1,000 of assessed value. In order for the town of Brookfield to keep their community and their tax rates low, they will have to take part of another community and raise the taxes of those residents.

However, as Walt points out, the section of the town of Waukesha being considered for annexation by the town of Brookfield is isolated from the rest of the town of Waukesha. The future of the area may be annexation by the city of Waukesha, the community with the highest tax rate. Indeed the mayor of Waukesha recently was reported as saying that he had conversations with Wal-Mart about the city possibly annexing the land.

If that happens, will residents of the town of Waukesha wish that they had voted to be included in the borders of the new village of Brookfield? Or will they flee the higher taxes with “for sale” signs?