In October 2020, I was five months into my position with the Peninsula Pulse when municipalities began crafting their 2021 budgets. As something of a local-government geek, I don’t find budget discussions akin to watching paint dry. Still, and even with the convenience of virtual meetings at a pandemic high last fall, we couldn’t Zoom into all 19 budget discussions, plus the County of Door, for a catch-up primer.
FULL REPORT: The Door County Budget Project
Providing access to information about how your local tax dollars are spent is one of the numerous services we provide as a newspaper. We also put the information into laypeople’s terms and easy-to-understand reporting because we know you’re busy, and clarity and context are necessary.
Yet we needed that elusive comparative baseline. The data is easily obtainable, yet it requires a time-consuming slog through numerous local and state websites, plus final phone calls and emails for missing pieces and clarifications. The project’s scope couldn’t be rotated into our normal deadlines with our regular staff. Fortunately, we knew someone with the expertise to access, analyze and present all the necessary data. More unusual, he’d probably even enjoy doing it.
Jackson Parr had been one of our staff writers until 2018, when he left to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at UW-Madison. We caught him on the cusp of obtaining that degree and landing a J. Phillip Keillor Flood Resilience Fellowship: a partnership between Wisconsin Sea Grant and the Climate and Health Program at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. In that position, he’s assessing the environmental, institutional and social implications of flood resilience and participation in disaster-management programs.
As we said: perfect.
We hired Parr last October for the Door County Budget Project, with an intended year-later launch date. Now complete, the project is accessible online at doorcountypulse.com.
The goal of the report is to “increase transparency between residents and their local governments, educate municipal officials and their constituents on trends and challenges in local government finance, and improve reporting at the Peninsula Pulse,” as Parr wrote in the report’s summary. The broad overview of all municipal budgets gives readers an understanding of how Door County municipalities vary widely in their needs, values and governing structures.
Each fall, all municipalities pass the next year’s budgets. We’re currently at the height of the budget season. The Door County Budget Project illuminates where your municipality is starting from for 2022 as it budgets to fund necessary public services such as roads, as well as state-mandated obligations such as public safety and elections.
For elected officials and municipal staff members who may never see a budget beyond their own, this document shows you how your municipality compares and contrasts with others. It also illuminates what the community’s values are in relation to those of the surrounding communities.
To show how the data can be used, we’ve pulled it into a few tables, included below. We’ve also made suggestions about how to start a conversation that will foster greater knowledge and insight about how your community operates, what those operations require and how they all affect your wallet in the form of property taxes.
As Parr wrote in his introduction, “Municipal finance is simultaneously among the most important and least exciting things about local governance.” With this project, we’re hoping that we’ve elevated and validated this importance in a more accessible, exciting way.