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EDITORIAL: Property tax freeze hurts homeowners, benefits state

On the surface, a property tax freeze may look like a good idea. After all, it caps how much local government can spend, right? Wrong. It merely caps how much the city can collect through taxes.

On the surface, a property tax freeze may look like a good idea. After all, it caps how much local government can spend, right? Wrong. It merely caps how much the city can collect through taxes.

Case in point: The new stormwater utility fee nets the city an extra $1.8 million annually. Property owners must pay it. But a fee for stormwater makes as much sense as charging a fee for snowplowing.

Government fees make sense when the level of service is measurable. Use four units of water, you pay for four units of wastewater. You pay a $75 registration fee for a car. You pay more to drive a truck. It costs nothing if you own neither. One can control the cost by conserving water or choosing what and whether to drive.

The same is not true for stormwater. You pay rain or shine.

In Superior -- and many other cities -- the fee is based on equivalent residential units (ERU). Superior defines that as 1,907 square feet of impervious surface. Single-family homeowners pay for one ERU per month, regardless if they have 2,400 square feet or 1,500 square feet of impervious area. All other property owners pay based on the impervious area.

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Arguably, the city had little choice except to create a fee to pay for the new mandate.

The property tax freeze limited Superior to a 3.86 percent increase -- or about $400,000 -- on the levy. That's not enough to pay for a $1.8 million federal mandate.

The city's recent 2 percent levy increase merely maintained existing services.

The problem now is property owners can't leverage the new expense against their income taxes. That means while Superior property owners collectively pay an additional $1.8 million to local government, the state won't be giving anyone in Superior a break on the new "tax" in 2008.

And Superior is just one of 134 municipalities in Wisconsin that had to implement stormwater programs recently.

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