The question arose back when Your Humble Squire was laboring at the Department of Revenue. Lafayette county was hurting for revenue. Its population of 16,753 is less than Fitchburg’s. The county, southwest of Dane County, responded by instituting a sales tax, which raised all of $840,000 last year. That compares to $54.9 million in Dane County.
Your Humble Squire thought at the time: Why couldn’t Lafayette County merge with Iowa County to the north?
No county has ever merged with another. Now, apparently, Ozaukee and Washington Counties are raising the possibility. Both counties are populous (Ozaukee: 88,314; Washington: 134,296). Both counties are wealthy Republican exurbs of Greater Milwaukee. Which means they recognize the value of a dollar and are not in thrall to More and Bigger Gummint.
WTMJ-4 reports that Washington County, faced with budget troubles, is “thinking out of the box [including] dissolving county lines and completely merging with Ozaukee County.
“I know that if we go down this path, that guys like me don’t have a job but I’m good with that,” the Washington County administrator said.
His County has already saved $300,000 by merging its health department with Ozaukee and another hundred grand merging with the Waukesha County medical examiner.
The Washington County Administrator sent a letter to four of its neighboring counties, letting them know about their fiscal health status.
Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, 71 had been formed by 1901 when most people moved by horseback. The Menominee reservation was carved out of Oconto and Shawano counties in 1959 to create its own county, in an experiment that failed. It was intended to wean it off reservation status but 35% of the 4,533 population are mired in poverty. Florence County (population: 4,423) and Menomonee (population: 4,232) are the two-least populous counties and have not a single incorporated village or city. For comparison purposes, Dane County is home to 531,273 (2010 Census).
The stickler is that all counties must provide the same array of services: law enforcement, roads, courts, health, general welfare, property records, etc. It’s a matter of economy of scale.
No county has ever merged, but they can
State law, specifically Chapter 59.08, provides for “consolidation” of counties, which is put to referendum. Let’s explore consolidation in low-population southwest Wisconsin, now divided among Grant (population: 52,214), Iowa (population: 23,654), and Lafayette (population: 16,753) for a combined 92,621. Lafayette was cleaved from Iowa County in 1846. You could argue: leave Grant alone. It’s large and fairly populous, but let’s go with the three-fer for this example.
County boards would take the lead. But if Lafayette’s county board remained silent, for instance, voters could petition for a referendum in their county. If its board still dragged its heels, a judge would appoint five citizens to work out the details with the merger partners. If the referendum on consolidation fails in any one of the counties, the whole deal goes down. Although long state law, no county has ever merged. Instead, most of our counties were cleaved from existing counties — originally just three in 1818: Crawford in the west, Brown in the east, and (encompassing the far north and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) Michilimackinac.
The hard, cold numbers may argue for consolidation but emotions could scuttle the whole thing. First, what to call the new, consolidated county? Nothing wrong with “Iowa-Lafayette” county unless the Lafayetters insist on “Lafayette-Iowa.” You see the problem! But the three-county merger we have imagined includes Grant County. That calls for a completely new, neutral name. “Driftless County”? “Lead County”?
Who gets the courthouse?
But it raises the question even more likely to sabotage merger than the consolidated county’s name: which city gets the county seat?
That question is particularly poignant in our three southwest county seats. Lancaster, Dodgeville, and Darlington have glorious old courthouses and, frankly, not a whole lot else going for them. Could some functions continue in each courthouse? The law specifies that the courts be consolidated at the county seat. But could the referendum specify all three as county seats? Our reading of 59.08 does not seem to rule out that possibility.
Existing sheriff’s facilities could continue as precinct houses. Dane County has three such sheriff’s precincts outside of Madison. If new, modern jails would required, the merged county would need build only one, not three.
We could find no authorization to carve up one county between two neighbors, even though it would seem to make sense in some cases.