Middleton referendum asks residents to approve tax increase to address staffing shortage

MIDDLETON, Wis. — Middleton hopes to combat a city-wide staffing shortage with a first-of-its-kind referendum on the ballot this November, but residents will need to cover the cost with higher property taxes.  

If passed, the referendum would add two more police officers, a city communications specialist, and a parks crew member. Doing so would raise the yearly tax levy by $770,000.

The city’s population has gone up 14% over the last five years, but staffing either hasn’t kept up or shrunk.

“As a police department, we’re really seeing the stress on the staff,” Police Chief Troy Hellenbrand said.

As the city’s population has grown, calls for incidents like violence and mental health crises have risen 81% from 2017 to 2021, he said.

“Middleton doesn’t have a CARES team, we don’t have the ability, we don’t have the funding to have that, so we have to work with what we have,” Hellenbrand said, “and that is having patrol officers deal with those situations.”  

But if he continues with just 39 patrol officers, “it’s going to go down a slippery slope that I really never want to see in Middleton.”  

“There are a number of calls for service that we are looking to cut in 2023 if we can’t add staff. Possibly responding to EMS calls, we’ll stop doing that, responding to fire calls,” he said. “We currently do lockouts as a public service that we’ll probably have to look to eliminate.” 

Ald. Kathy Olson, the president of the Middleton Common Council, said while the number of acres of parkland has increased over time, “we haven’t added a full-time parks person in over 24 years.”

The communications specialist position is in response to citizen action surveys, she said, in which communication was ranked as a low point.   

It’s not just the city’s growing pains that have led to a referendum.  

According to Olson, the job market has caused more city employees to leave.

“We’ve lost 29 positions this year alone. Seventeen full-time staff have left,” she said.  

That’s why the referendum in November also calls for a 4% increase in non-union city wages.  

“We will be faced with the problem of, ‘Will we be able to retain our employees, are we able to attract new employees for this?’” she said.

However, the citizens will have to pay for the new hires.

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Middleton’s main revenue source is the tax levy, “So, when we run into situations with inflation and turnover and staffing, the levy is really the only tool that we have in the tool chest,” City Administrator Bryan Gadow said.  

The referendum will increase property taxes by $19.79 a year per $100,000 in assessed property value. 

“We’ve not gone to voters before to ask for an operating referendum, so this is unique and we fully recognize that this is something challenging that we’re asking people to consider,” Gadow said.

According to Gadow, they considered consolidating positions and limited-term employment, but ultimately full-time positions were needed, and raising the tax levy was the only avenue.  

“I don’t know if there are any other ways,” Gadow said. “We’ve looked at all other ways of raising the tax revenue beyond (a) referendum, those options like a wheel tax and other things just don’t work to provide the level of revenue needed to sustain things.”   

Gadow says without the referendum, “we’ll have to have some hard conversations about what services we’ll continue to provide.” 

Voters with questions about the referendum can head to the city’s website.