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By Dave Umhoefer April 5, 2012

Republican Governors Association says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett raises taxes and fees every year

The Republican Governors Association is back on Tom Barrett’s case.

The pro-Scott Walker group is reprising its 2010 attacks on the Milwaukee mayor, who lost to Walker in the governor’s race and is seeking the Democratic Party nod in the impending 2012 recall election.

Topic A (again): Taxes.

In 2010, we rated Mostly False an RGA claim that Barrett, as a Milwaukee congressman, "voted for the largest tax increase in history."

Now on a sharply worded website dubbed "Higher Taxes, Fewer Jobs," a political arm of the RGA (the Right Direction Wisconsin PAC) alleges:

"Instead of making government live within its means, Mayor Barrett paid for all his spending by raising taxes, even in these challenging economic times. In his very first budget, Mayor Barrett broke his pledge to keep a lid on property taxes and has continued increasing taxes and fees ever since. In fact, property taxes are up more than 20 percent and fees have doubled."

The website is a detailed complement to an RGA TV ad on Barrett -- the ad featuring an elevator going down. (We’re working on several claims from that ad, which also goes after Democrat Kathleen Falk, also running in the all-but-certain recall election against Walker).

Barrett, in addition to running in the Walker recall race, was re-elected as Milwaukee mayor on April 3, 2012 against underfunded candidate Edward McDonald.

No one disputes that total tax levy collections rose during Barrett’s two terms, and the RGA gets the numbers roughly right.

But we were interested in whether Barrett broke an old campaign promise on taxes, and has raised taxes and fees every year.

On the campaign promise, an RGA spokesman pointed us to an Aug. 7, 2003 Journal Sentinel article on a candidate forum from Barrett’s first bid for mayor.

"As mayor, I will not raise property taxes," Barrett said at the forum.

We found a similarly forceful pledge in the paper’s coverage of another forum on August 23, 2003.

"I'm not going to raise property taxes," Barrett said at that one.

The tax levy has grown 25 percent under Barrett, from 2005 to 2012, according to official city figures on tax changes under Barrett.

Case closed?

No. There’s more to this story.

After both Barrett quotes, the stories immediately noted Barrett had made clear his pledge was to freeze the tax rate, not the overall tax levy -- the total amount collected from all city taxpayers.

So what happened to the rate? The rate actually went down 5.5% in Barrett’s first budget -- the "very first budget" the RGA website refers to.

To be sure, its not an especially impressive feat -- rising property assessments meant the rate could go down even if more money was collected in taxes. What’s more, those same rising property values meant many homeowners faced a higher out-of-pocket bill despite the lower rate.

But that was the pledge Barrett made.

The RGA website also says Barrett broke his pledge to "keep a lid on" property taxes in his first budget.

That’s another line right out of the 2003-’04 campaign. It came later in the race, when Barrett, under pressure to toughen up his tax pledge, said he would impose a virtual freeze in the overall tax levy in his first budget.

"Pledges to keep lid on amount collected from property tax," the Journal Sentinel said of Barrett in a Nov. 12, 2003 issues story. "Would allow increase in first budget, for 2005, to account for increased tax base from new construction. Would review this pledge on ‘a year-by-year basis.’ Not considering any fee increases."

So Barrett made the same "freeze" proposal that state legislative Republicans championed at the time -- allowing only for tax increases to cover the new growth in a community.

How did Barrett do on that second pledge, which was only for one year?

He proposed a 1.99 percent levy increase for 2005, compared with new construction growth of 2.175 percent. He did not renew his tax pledge for his next budget.

For the record, in subsequent years, Barrett signed budgets that raised the levy by 5.0 percent, 3.3 percent, 3.3 percent, 4.3 percent, 4.1 percent, 0 percent and 0.5 percent.

The rest of the RGA claim is that Barrett has continued increasing taxes and fees "ever since" that first budget in 2005.

What does that mean? One way to hear the statement is an allegation that both fees and taxes went up every year.

Another is that taxes or fees -- one or the other, not both -- went up every year.

Either way, there are problems with that part of the RGA claim.

It’s clear that both taxes and fees have not both gone up every year.

Barrett’s 2011 budget -- presented as he ran against Walker -- actually cut the tax levy a tiny amount. It was the only time he had done so in his eight years. Indeed, the RGA’s own TV ad says: "Taxes went up every year but one."

Collections from major fees usually went up, year to year under Barrett from 2005 to 2012, but they went down twice compared with the previous year, city records show.

In 2011 fees didn’t go up, so that year neither taxes nor fees went up. This is based on the collective take from the city’s major property-related fees, including fees for solid waste, snow and ice removal, stormwater and sewer.

But it’s worth noting that if you define fees much more broadly -- as every service charge city departments collect -- fees in fact have gone up every year on Barrett’s watch, as his budget documents note.

And even in 2011, when fees against residential property owners fell overall, one fee, for stormwater, went up. An owner of a one-to-four unit residential property saw an increase per quarter in that fee.

For the city, fees are a stand-in for property taxes, we noted in a September 2010 item. We reported that revenue from major fees had more than doubled under Barrett. A new fee -- the stormwater management charge -- went into effect under Barrett.

Our conclusion

The Republican Governors Association said, "In his very first budget, (Milwaukee) Mayor Barrett broke his pledge to keep a lid on property taxes and has continued increasing taxes and fees ever since."

The group is wrong on Barrett’s first budget, no matter which of Barrett’s promises you consider. But there’s an element of truth in the part of the claim alleging continual fee and tax increases, depending on how you define fees.

We rate the RGA statement Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Right Direction Wisconsin PAC, "Higher Taxes, Fewer Jobs" website, accessed March 26, 2012

Right Direction Wisconsin PAC, TV ad, March 22, 2012

Wisconsin Department of Revenue, database of new construction values, accessed March 27, 2012

City of Milwaukee, Budget office archive of historical tax levies, tax rates and budgets, accessed March 27, 2012

Journal Sentinel archives

Email interview with Mike Schrimpf, Republican Governors Association spokesman, March 26, 2012

City budget, 2011, fees and taxes, accessed March 28, 2012

Telephone interview with Mark Nicolini, city budget director, March 29, 2012

Email interview with Dennis Yaccarino, city of Milwaukee economist, March 29, 2012

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Republican Governors Association says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett raises taxes and fees every year

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