Millville struggling as DNR purchases more property in township
By Correne Martin
The property tax base in Millville Township is shrinking, landowners’ shares are rising, and there may not be much residents can do about it. That was the message clearly heard by the 20 people attending a listening session with Senator Dale Schultz in Millville’s one-room town hall the morning of Aug. 27.
Recently, the Department of Natural Resources paid appraised value to purchase 146.5 acres from owner Jo Ann Shea, at 14246 Campbell Ridge Rd., Millville. The purchase brings the DNR’s total land ownership in Millville to about 4,200 acres out of 13,000, and the department is seeking another 500 acres, which would put 36 percent of the township’s land in the hands of the DNR.
The amount of land owned by the DNR is creating serious tax burden issues for the township, since the DNR is not subject to the same taxes as local landowners.
Schultz said a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would raise the payback for townships like Millville; however, the bill did not succeed. An attempt to reintroduce legislation could happen this fall, yet there are no guarantees that anything will change.
According to minutes from a May 2013 DNR board meeting, the Shea parcel, which was a high-priority acquisition for the Lower Wisconsin Riverway project, is completely bound along the east and west by state ownership. It is primarily composed of upland woodlands located on a bluff above the riverway. The property includes a farmhouse and outbuildings, which are being leased to Shea through October, when they will be razed and sold for salvage.
According to the DNR, its state-owned land provides opportunities for public recreation, allows natural resources management, and enhances the natural resources along the riverway.
Despite the DNR’s promises, Millville Town Board members and local landowners who voiced their opinions at last week’s session believe they’re being slighted.
“What are our alternatives when we don’t have enough money to keep maintaining the township?” Millville Town Supervisor Judy Carlson asked Schultz. “It’s a challenge running this small township (on a budget of $105,000 to $110,000). We’ve been lucky that we have good people who help us where they can. But we’re just one piece of broken machinery away from a collapse we can’t recover from.”
“There’s nothing we can do. We have no options,” Supervisor Marlena Ward added.
Millville, which has a population of 186, is about two-thirds the size of a typical Wisconsin township. It is located in the River Ridge School District in Grant County.
In mid-April, the town board adopted a resolution against the DNR purchase of the Shea property.
“We had to get the DNR’s attention,” Carlson said, noting that the intent was not to criticize Shea for selling her property.
Shea, who attended last week’s listening session, seemed to agree with the “unfair tax burden” in Millville and said she attempted to find other buyers before settling with the DNR on July 19.
According to Carlson, the DNR gained its 4,200 acres in Millville in three phases. The first was before 1969, when the DNR started paying 88 cents per acre for property taxes. That was a fair price back then, yet the DNR continues to pay the same amount on that land today.
The second phase was between 1969 and 1992, when the DNR bought the majority of its land in the township—over 3,000 acres. For the land acquired during those years, the DNR made the full payment of taxes and then that amount was reduced by 10 percent each year, until it reached 50 cents per acre. It currently pays 50 cents per acre for that land.
The third phase was from 1992 to 2012. For the land purchased during that time period, the DNR pays the same amount as Millville taxpayers do.
Senator Schultz gave his perspective on the town’s unique situation. He said the legislature is “ultimately responsible for what happened here.” He said suburban areas of Wisconsin have the biggest voice, especially since those areas have grown dramatically in recent years, and their legislative representatives are not going to vote to pay more in property taxes to help out the rural areas, like Millville.
“This area is already an importer of taxes and a lot of people in other areas of the state don’t like that,” Schultz explained. “There’s not a lot of communities like yours. This is a big government issue and there’s not much you can say about it, but people here are frustrated and I’m not going to give up on this. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep fighting for you.”
Schultz added that local residents should continue making noise and consider forming a coalition to spread awareness around the state about the high percentage of DNR ownership and the disparate tax rate.
“Focus on an educational effort to the people who are doing the talking in Madison,” he suggested. “Talk to the parks, the recreational programs and businesses, and other marketing partners and find a way to get the people who come here for recreation to help you out.”
Residents leaving last week’s listening session seemed sullen about what can be done to force change, lessen their tax burden and improve their township. One gentleman even stormed out of the session early, stating, “I can see nothing’s going to change.”
As for the Millville Town Board, their next step is to go to the DNR’s spring meetings and continue to raise the issue.
“The reason I got on this board was because I saw the disparity and I wanted to delve into reducing taxes,” Carlson said. “I love having the public land, but I do want to remain here and I want our township to continue to operate on its own.”