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By Dave Umhoefer August 5, 2011

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce says Brown County increased spending 50 percent while Nancy Nusbaum was county executive

As she campaigns to upend GOP state Sen. Robert Cowles in one of the closely watched Wisconsin recall campaigns, Democrat Nancy Nusbaum is talking up her long record of public service.

Now an ally of Cowles, the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, is trying to use that record against Nusbaum.

In a television ad paid for by its issues fund, the heavyweight business group is ripping Nusbaum’s fiscal record during her eight years as Brown County executive, which ended in 2003.

"Spending went up, taxes went up," the ad says in part. "Everything Nancy Nusbaum touches goes up. When Nusbaum was Brown County executive, spending went up nearly 50 percent. Tell Nancy Nusbaum we expect fiscal responsibility to be real, not a lot of hot air."

In the ad, hot air balloons and rockets rise to underline the point.

When we sought backup from WMC, the group did not return calls. So we checked the record.

Brown County officials looked up the budget numbers for us, focusing on the seven budgets Nusbaum signed from late 1995 to early 2003.

Operating spending went up 53 percent over those seven years. That works out to an average increase of 6.3 percent per year. State, local and federal funds contribute to the budget.

So the ad is on target numerically.

Indeed, Nusbaum does not dispute the numbers in it and did not criticize the ad as unfair but noted the County Board had a role in the budgets.

By contrast, the spending increase over the seven years following Nusbaum’s tenure was 34 percent, which is 4.2 percent per year on average.

The ad pulls the statistic out without any context for what was behind it.

Why the dramatic difference in spending?

Nusbaum pointed to replacement of an overcrowded jail, the cost of state-mandated services, increasing urbanization and associated social service costs, and the costs of caring for an aging population, among other reasons.

Property values and state aid to counties were rising, welfare and jail spending grew rapidly, and counties saw big increases in administrative costs for things such as information technology, said John Reinemann, legislative director for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Levy limits on counties were minimal compared with today, Reinemann noted.

Reinemann told us that 7 percent to 8 percent annual spending increases such as those in Brown County were not uncommon in the late 1990s among Wisconsin counties.

His view is backed up by a ranking of counties that shows Brown in the middle of the pack in growth of spending per capita from 1993-2001. That is from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a research organization.

Spending in six key categories went up 6.3 percent annually during that time, the group found.

Nusbaum, a retired teacher and former mayor of De Pere, said she prefers to point to the property tax rate instead of the total tax levy and kept it stable as executive. Brown County records show she did that.

But the rate does not reflect the true cost of government, especially when it comes to property taxes. The rate can stay steady or decline, but tax bills can rise if the property tax levy (an indicator of spending) goes up.

In Brown County, as elsewhere, increasing property values in the 1990s helped hold down the tax rate even as total tax levy collections rose. Statewide values jumped up 7.7 percent a year from 1993-2002, WTA found. In fact, statewide, net property tax rates actually dropped during the decade as property values soared.

Let’s conclude.

A business group spotlighted the budget increases during Nusbaum’s term, suggesting through words and graphics that they were sky high.

They certainly were large compared with the years that followed, for reasons related to decisions by Nusbaum, county supervisors, the state, and local residents -- as well as demographics and sociological trends.

The number -- 50 percent -- is on target.

But the ad leaves out information about the other factors that went into the spending. Indeed, Brown County’s spending was not atypical for the time and by at least one group’s measure was in the middle of the pack.

We rate the WMC claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Interview with Nancy Nusbaum, candidate for state Senate, August 4, 2011

Interview with Ellen C. Sorensen, director of administration, Brown County, August 3-4, 2011

Interview with John Reinemann, legislative director, Wisconsin Counties Association, August 4, 2011

Interview with Steve Cady, fiscal and budget analyst, Milwaukee County Board, August 4, 2011

Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, "Wisconsin Counties: Fiscal Perspectives," March 2003

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Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce says Brown County increased spending 50 percent while Nancy Nusbaum was county executive

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