Taxation FAQ 7

Can a municipality grant a full or partial property tax exemption to a property owner or a business?

No. Article VIII, sec. 1. of the Wisconsin Constitution provides that "The rule of taxation shall be uniform...." This provision, which applies only to the property tax, Gottlieb v. Milwaukee, 33 Wis.2d 408, 427-28, 147 N.W.2d 633 (1967), does, however, contain language which allows the legislature to classify and exempt property. Nash Sales, Inc. v. Milwaukee, 198 Wis. 281, 224 N.W. 126 (1929). The provision contains certain exemptions, such as the language specifying that the taxation of agriculture and undeveloped land need not be uniform with the taxation of other property, but it should be noted that this language only enables the state legislature to enact certain non-uniform provisions.

Unlike the state, municipalities do not have the power to create full or partial exemptions and a municipality may not lawfully grant a property tax break because such action would violate the uniformity clause of the Wisconsin Constitution. Thus, the assessment of property cannot be frozen as an incentive for businesses to locate in a community, nor can a municipality agree to give tax rebates to property tax owners or rebates of tax increment financing (TIF) to businesses in a TIF district. In a similar vein, property that is destroyed after the January 1 assessment date is still subject to full taxation for that year; no adjustment can be made for the damage. Taxation 961 and Taxation 953.

It does not follow, however, that a municipality cannot give any incentives to property owners or renters. Municipalities may install public improvements without levying special assessments. Municipalities may also rent out unneeded land or buildings to others and there is no property tax due for the municipally owned property. Wis. Stat. sec. 70.11(2).

Moreover, there are accepted methods of encouraging economic development. The tax increment financing (TIF) law, Wis. Stat. 66.1105, with its allowance of land acquisition write down expenses as a project cost, Wis. Stat. sec. 66.1105(2)(f)1c, is one example. The authority of municipalities to benefit industry by installing roads and utilities (but not buildings) pursuant to Wis. Stat. sec. 66.1101(3), is another.

Finally, there is some old case law upholding municipal agreements with property owners that establish payments by the municipality to a property owner of an amount based on taxes for continuing services. The amount to be paid must still be in accord with the value of the services. See Monroe Water Works v. Monroe, 110 Wis. 11, 85 N.W. 685 (1901). However, it is not always easy to fit an agreement into this category and avoid invalidation by the courts. See Ehrlich v. Racine, 26 Wis. 2d 352, 132 N.W.2d 489 (1985) and Cornwell v. City of Stevens Point, 159 Wis. 2d 136, 464 N.W. 2d 33 (Ct. App. 1990). Accordingly, even where continuing services are clearly involved, it may be more prudent to base the payment on something other than taxes so that the payment reflects the value of the services.

In the end, this means that municipalities may provide certain benefits and incentives to property owners and businesses, but municipalities cannot grant total or partial property tax breaks to property owners or businesses.