Half-cent Ozaukee tax becomes unlikely issue in Assembly contest marked by accusations of dirty politics, sketchy facts
Ozaukee County’s half-cent sales tax hasn’t been an issue for more than a decade, but Jean Opitz, a candidate for the 60th District Assembly seat from the Town of Belgium, is making it one heading into the Tuesday, Aug. 12, Republican primary election in a controversial campaign mailer criticizing her opponent Rob Brooks.
And Brooks, a county supervisor from Saukville, is fighting back.
“Either she’s completely ignorant of the facts or she’s just a liar,” Brooks said in response to Opitz’s campaign literature, which paints him as a “tax and spend” politician. “It’s just morally wrong to throw that garbage out there. It represents everything that is wrong with politics.”
At issue is an Opitz mailer intended to illustrate the impact of the county sales tax with two lists of identical purchases — a home, family sedan, front-load washer and gallon of milk — with two different total costs — $309,350 in Ozaukee County and $307,884 in Sheboygan County, which doesn’t have a county sales tax.
“If you bought all these things, why do they cost $1,466.11 more in Ozaukee County?,” the flyer asks. “It’s a good question for County Supervisor Rob Brooks.”
The problem, Brooks noted, is that Opitz is wrong. Homes and most food, including milk, are exempt from sales tax.
“It’s totally misleading,” he said. “Actually, it’s just plain wrong.”
In addition, the 0.5% county sales tax was enacted in 1991 to pay for construction of the Justice Center, remodeling of the historic courthouse and for a communications system, then extended indefinitely in 1999 to offset the property tax levy — before Brooks was elected to the County Board in 2002.
Opitz said the point of her mailing was to illustrate that Brooks, who served as County Board chairman for nine years, has abided the sales tax.
“The point is, during his 12 years on the board, Rob Brooks has done nothing to end the sales tax,” Opitz said.
The reason, Brooks said, that neither he nor any other supervisor has attempted to repeal the sales tax is that it generates roughly $6 million a year — an estimated $6.8 million this year — to offset the property tax levy. And although proceeds of the tax benefit Ozaukee County residents, it is paid not only by them but by non-residents who spend money in the county.
According to Ozaukee County Finance Director Andy Lamb, county sales tax revenue offsets the property tax levy by 35%.
“It’s easy to throw things out there, like let’s repeal the sales tax, but she doesn’t offer any alternatives,” Brooks said, noting that 62 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have a sales tax, including Washington County,
part of which is in the 60th Assembly District. “What’s the alternative? Raise property taxes by 35%?”
Brooks noted that the property tax rate in Sheboygan County — the county Opitz used as an example because it doesn’t have a sales tax — is more than double that of Ozaukee County.
But Opitz said Brooks’ rationale for continuing the sales tax shows why he is not a true fiscal conservative.
“A true conservative would not frame the argument this way,” she said. “You reduce spending and live within your means. That’s what it means to be a fiscal conservative.”
Brooks cites record as supervisor
Brooks said during his tenure on the board the county tax rate has decreased 5% to remain one of the lowest in the state. The size of county government has shrunk, with the number of county supervisors
reduced from 31 to 26, committees cut by 70% and the workforce reduced by 20%.
“I’ve held the line on taxes without reducing services. In fact, I think services have improved,” Brooks said. “I’ve made the tough decisions to do it, and I stand by every single one of them.
“You can’t be more of a fiscal conservative than I am.”
But those decisions included borrowing millions of dollars over the last 12 years, Opitz said.
“My opponent has a record of borrowing at a rate that disqualifies him from being considered a fiscal conservative,” she said.
Brooks, however, said the numbers show the county has borrowed responsibly.
According to county financial statements and County Administrator Tom Meaux, the county currently has $23.9 million in debt, which is 4.7% of the amount it is allowed to borrow.
That, Brooks noted, is one of the reasons the county has a AAA bond rating from Moody’s Investors Service.
Supervisors recently approved borrowing an additional $10 million to renovate the county’s Lasata Care Center nursing home in Cedarburg, which will bring the county’s total debt to $33.9 million, 45% of which is scheduled to be repaid within five years. Within 10 years, 78% of the debt is to be paid.
Brooks pointed out that with the Lasata borrowing more than half of the county’s debt will be paid through business enterprise accounts. In other words, the county entities that benefit from the borrowing — Lasata Senior Living Campus, for instance — will pay the debt with proceeds they generate.
“More than half the county’s debt does not impact the tax levy,” Brooks said.
Candidates cite Lasata example
While Opitz says Lasata is another example of the excessive borrowing that has occurred on Brooks’ watch, Brooks says plans for the nursing home are an example of the leadership he hopes to bring to Madison.
Late last year, a county committee proposed building a $3 million community-based residential facility (CBRF) on the grounds of Lasata Senior Living Campus and investing $7 million in nursing home renovations.
Brooks led an effort to put the brakes on those plans so they could be vetted. His concern, he said at the time, was that the CBRF would cost more than expected and the county would squander its chance to renovate the aging nursing home to ensure it remains financially viable rather than become a property tax burden.
A subsequent analysis conducted by the Minneapolis-based architectural and engineering firm Horty Elving concluded the CBRF would cost considerably more than $3 million, and plans for it were dropped.
The study also concluded that by investing $10 million in renovating and downsizing Lasata Care Center, the nursing home’s financial losses would be minimized and more than offset by revenues from other facilities on the senior living campus. The campus as a whole is expected to generate a significant profit after the nursing home work is completed.
As the newly appointed chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Brooks backed the plan and won support for it. Last month, the County Board voted unanimously to borrow $10 million for the renovations.
“I didn’t just say no to the plan,” Brooks said. “I came up with a better solution, one that was approved by a unanimous vote. I didn’t do that by browbeating people or trashing those who didn’t agree with me. I did it by educating people. That’s how you get a unanimous vote.”
Opitz says she knows how to manage money
While Brooks, 49, owner of the real estate firm Brooks Investment Group, cites his record as a County Board supervisor and business owner, Opitz, 53, a self-employed fundraiser currently working for Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, says 18 years of experience in the banking industry shows she knows how to manage money. “My priorities as a legislator would be to focus on lowering individual and corporate taxes, reducing government regulation of small businesses and creating jobs,” Opitz said. “That is the road to prosperity in Wisconsin.”
Opitz said she supports Right to Work legislation and Right the Rules, an effort backed by Gov. Scott Walker and state Assembly leaders to review the 1,768 chapters of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.
Brooks said his priority would be to explore reducing or eliminating the state income tax while also examining property and corporate taxes.
“We need to take a look at all taxes and all user fees while finding ways to reduce regulation,” Brooks said.
Both candidates said they support voter ID legislation, lifting the cap on school choice enrollment, replacing Common Core standards with Wisconsin educational standards and Act 10, the state law enacted in 2011 that limited collective bargaining and changed compensation and benefits for public employees.
“Act 10 has allowed Wisconsin to regain financial stability while allowing school districts more flexibility in programming that better meets the needs of students,” Opitz said.
Brooks said Act 10 has benefited local school districts and the county even though it has not been fully implemented.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done. So much of the implementation of Act 10 has been held up by court challenges,” he said.
Candidates support school choice
On the issue of school choice, Brooks said he favors an immediate removal of the cap regulating enrollment in the program because it will empower parents and improve the education offered by both public and private schools.
“I favor a rip-the-bandage off approach,” he said. “Let local parents decide where their children should be educated.
“If you’re going to reform the system, open it up to the free market and you will see a huge change in educational performance.”
Opitz said she also supports unlimited school choice.
“I’m in favor of unlimited school choice so the market can determine how many families want to take advantage of this option,” she said.
Both candidates said educational reform should also include a repeal of Common Core, a set of national school standards adopted by 43 states, including Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.
“Wisconsin needs to control its educational product by developing its own set of expectations and its own test,” Opitz said.
To develop those standards, the governor should appoint a blue ribbon committee comprised of parents, business leaders and educators, she said.
Brooks said the Department of Public Instruction and legislators should work quickly to develop state educational standards.
“We should put the brakes on Common Core immediately because it makes no sense to continue spending time and money to meet standards that we know are going to be repealed,” he said. “The time already spent on meeting Common Core standards won’t be wasted because school districts can use some of those standards and some of the old standards while new ones are being created.”
Brooks wants to curb MATC taxing power
Brooks said he also favors eliminating the taxing authority of the Milwaukee Area Technical College Board.
“It would be interesting to have local school boards whose members are elected, unlike the MATC board, control MATC funding,” he said. “You would see a huge shift in the way our high schools and MATC educate students and huge synergies.”
On the subject of the environment, Brooks said he considers the state Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which has provided funding for several Ozaukee and Washington county preservations efforts, including the county-owned Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton, to be a valuable source of grant money that should be maintained.
“Absolutely I think it’s a good expenditure of state money,” he said. “But with any program, we need to prioritize where we spend the money. When you start buying large tracts of land just because they’re available, I don’t agree with that.”
Opitz said state environmental funding has not been much of an issue in the Assembly race.
“If enough people are uneasy about it, we would need to take a look at the funding,” she said.
Brooks and Opitz are vying to succeed Duey Stroebel of Saukville, who is stepping down from the 60th Assembly District to run for the 6th Congressional District.
The winner of the Republican primary Assembly race will be the presumed winner of the Nov. 4 general election since no Democratic candidates are running.