Two Wisconsin counties consider merging for efficiencies

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?


We ran the county map of Wisconsin through Ol’Sparky to propose merged counties. After throwing a fan belt and singing “Mary had a little lamb,” the Eisenhower-era mainframe effected 21 mergers involving 54 of our state’s 72 counties. That cuts the number of counties to 39. Our least populated unconsolidated county would be Green, at 37,075 but still the 39th most populous of the current 72.
In general, Ol’ Sparky did not touch counties small in geographic area if they have large population centers. Milwaukee (population: 951,448), obviously.
There’s less of a case to merge Dodge (population: 88,068) and Jefferson (population: 84,625) counties except that the two counties split Watertown, the largest city between them.
Wood (population: 73,107) and Portage (population: 70,447) lie side by side. They seem to be separated only to preserve the spheres of influence of their largest cities: Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point, respectively. Geographically a merged Wood and Portage County would be about the same size and population as Marathon (physically, the states’s largest county at 1,584 square miles) to the north. Ozaukee is the second smallest at 233 square miles to Pepin’s 232.
Even merged, only 22,073 would populate Ashland and Iron counties. But its combined area make it bigger than Marathon County. Distance remains a factor, although less so in this Information Age.

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.


About David Blaska

Madison WI
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Two Wisconsin counties consider merging for efficiencies

  1. old baldy says:

    I have long advocated the elimination of the Township layer of government, letting the County handle all the heavy lifting. Many states in the south don’t have counties, ditto some in the NE.

    Having said that, a couple comments/questions are necessary:

    Why was the creation of Menominee County a failure? It still exists, sharing the same boundaries as the Menominee Reservation and the Town of Menominee. You surly don’t believe that the creation of Menominee County is what is causing the existing poverty, do you?

    Why do two counties that are among the reddest in the nation want to combine to create yet a bigger government? I thought you guys were all against Bigger Gummint??

    Lastly, a couple years ago the legislature passed and the governor sign a law (I think it was Act 55) that prohibited county highway departments from sharing equipment at the behest of the roadbuilders. Seems like a little hypocrisy in action , no?


    • David Blaska says:

      The answer to your question is “to save taxpayers money.” Combining jurisdictions is less government, not more, Baldy. It is a local decision, at the behest of the citizenry in referendum. Menomonee county was created in anticipation of the termination of the Menominee Indian Reservation in 1961 as an experiment in being weaned from federal control. The reservation status was restored in 1973.


      • old baldy says:


        That is your opinion, unsupported by any facts or data. And combining them makes for a bigger governmental operation. I would think a smart guy like you could do that math.

        Still the question remains: how is the creation of Menominee County a failure?? Again, a smart guy like you would know, or at least should before commenting, that the Tribal, County and Township government are all separate and independent. Dissolution of the tribal status didn’t work, but the County is doing fine. You ever been there? Know anybody in any of the 3 units of government?

        If “bigger is better (cheaper)”, why are all the conservatives trying to break up large institutions? Milw schools, DNR, DOT, drain the swamp??? Intentionally prohibiting the sharing of services between counties. I sense an aura of cognitive dissonance about you.


        • David Blaska says:

          If you want to argue that Washington County is liberal-progressive-socialist, go for it! Menomonee County is doing fine? It’s the most impoverished county in Wisconsin!


  2. old baldy says:


    No question Menominee County has problems, but was the formation of the County back when the cause? Your claim, “in an experiment that failed” sure glosses over that fact that the county form of government is still there and operating just fine. The experiment you cited failed for a lot of reasons, but not because the county was created. Talk about alternative facts, you would give Conway a run.

    I never said anything about Washington County, that is all your imagination. I was just asking why a “conservative” county would want to promote a bigger form of government, and why any of todays conservatives would support it without any proof that it would save any taxpayer dollars.


    • David Blaska says:

      Creating the county in 1959 was supposed to obviate the need for a federal reservation. It did not. Reservation status was ultimately restored. Because of the miniscule tax base, the county is hard-pressed to provide normal county services. Look it up.


  3. old baldy says:

    Again, you fail to prove your claim. Creation of the county by itself wasn’t the cause. I did look it up, and have lots of experience working with those folks. You ??


    • David Blaska says:

      Nobody said it was the cause! I said creation of the county failed to obviate the need for reservation status, which at the time was considered opprobrious.


  4. Pingback: The (more than) 50 states and (fewer than) 72 counties – Steve The Presteblog

  5. paintball says:

    Thanks for finally writing about >Two Wisconsin counties consider merging for efficiencies | Stately
    Blaska Manor <Loved it!


Comments are closed.