City Makes Major Blunder on Property Tax Mailer

By Eric Timmons

A flyer sent out by the city recently to La Crosse residents contained two major errors that falsely made it appear as if the School District and County had increased their tax levies by double figures.

The flyers were mailed with property tax bills and claimed the La Crosse School District levy had increased by 12.63% from 2018 to 2021. In fact, the district’s levy declined by 2.85% over that period. The flyer also stated that La Crosse County’s levy had increased by 21.41% from 2018 to 2021, when in reality it increased by just 4.63%.

In a Friday afternoon email to Mayor Tim Kabat, the inaccuracies were highlighted by County Administrator Steve O’Malley, who said he was writing to the mayor to express his surprise and disappointment (view the full email here).

“The information overstated the percentage change in County and School District tax levies by more than 4 ½ times, which is not a small error,” O’Malley wrote. “I have cc’d the City Council, the County Board and School Board on this communication so they have the correct information if they are questioned by any taxpayers who received the flyer.”

The incorrect levy changes as shown in the city flyer are on the left. The correct changes are on the right. Source: La Crosse County.

The flyer correctly noted that the city’s levy had decreased by 0.8% from 2018 to 2021. O’Malley pointed out that “any understanding of the tax levy limit should have caused someone to question a double-digit percentage increase by either the County or School District.” Neither body could raise its levy by such a large amount without holding a referendum.

The flyer did not just contain incorrect numbers, it also featured a narrative that referenced the wrong County and School District percentages and contrasted them with the city’s.

“The narrative seems to imply some sort of superior fiscal austerity by the City compared to the County and School (District),” O’Malley wrote. “I do not perceive that our organizations are in competition as we each strive to live within our unique fiscal constraints. And all three jurisdictions kept levy changes under the rate of inflation over these past three years.”

In an email released Saturday, Kabat offered his “sincere apologies” for any “mistakes in the information conveyed in our tax insert.”

“I have asked our Finance department to review and correct the information.” Kabat said in the email, which he sent to O’Malley and other city, school district and county officials. “We will assess how best to convey the corrected info to everyone. “

School District officials are expected to issue a response next week to the errors in the flyer. O’Malley noted in his email, which was obtained by the La Crosse Independent, that there have been previous mistakes in city budget documents related to the County and School District’s mill rates.

“During County budget deliberation, our staff focuses solely on the County Budget and County Tax Levy.  Nowhere in any of our communication to our Board or the public do we reference the change in tax levies of the 18 municipalities or 8 school districts within the County boundaries, because other units of government are not our responsibility,” O’Malley continued. “I respectfully request that if City staff feels the need to communicate anything about the County or School District Tax Levies, that they have the professional courtesy to confer with County and School District Finance staff to verify the information.” 

The 2021 La Crosse County Tax Levy is the lowest compared to the six Wisconsin Counties most similar by population, O’Malley noted. 

“In the final analysis, the insert fails to communicate accurate information that informs the public of the great value delivered by the City, County or School District, while undermining trust among the three organizations,” he added. “During your tenure as Mayor we have accomplished a great deal for the community through collaboration (City-County-School) on a range of tough issues, which is why I find the tax insert flyer to be discouraging.”

Kabat is not seeking another term in the April mayoral election but 10 candidates are vying for the mayor’s job. The field will be narrowed to two after the Feb. 16 primary election

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