Area residents packed the Lisbon Fire Department Wednesday night to learn more about a possible merger between the Village of Sussex and the Town of Lisbon, and some people didn’t like what they were hearing.
About 250 people attended the informational meeting where Matt Gehrke, the town’s chairman, spoke about four options available for Lisbon, each with advantages and drawbacks. The town could either:
Stay the Same
Stay exactly as they are, but be at constant risk of having land annexed by surrounding communities. If that were to happen, Lisbon’s tax base would be reduced, and it can’t afford for that to happen.
Act Like a Village
Continue as a town but provide services like most villages providing a short-term tax benefit. This is not the first choice of any Town Board member.
Try to Become a Village
Try again to become a village, something Lisbon has spent over $100,000 trying to do last year and failed in June 2011. The town would have better luck snagging support from the surrounding communities to become a village if it gave them land, esentially paying them off. However, then Lisbon's tax base would be even lower causing more problems.
Merge with Sussex
Merge with Sussex, face increased taxes, but maintain the type of lifestyle Lisbon residents are accustomed to.
“Realistically, as a board, we know there are a lot of people that don’t want anything to change,” Gehrke said. “That’s an option, but not a long-term one. Towns can be viewed as land banks for future growth of neighboring villages or cities. This is extremely problematic. With an eroding tax base, that would mean decreasing services or increasing taxes.”
The board held meetings with officials from both Sussex and the Village of Merton regarding a merger, but Merton firmly said its not interested in expanding. Sussex, on the other hand, is interested, but blending the municipalities is already raising tons of questions, especially when it comes to money.
While it won’t cost anything to merge, Wisconsin law requires residents in the same municipality to be taxed the same. With Lisbon’s tax rate significantly lower than Sussex’s, a blending would slowly occur over 10 years where former Lisbon residents’ tax rate would increase by about a dollar and current Sussex residents’ tax rate would decrease by about a dollar, meeting somewhere in the middle.
"...if we want to maintain somewhat of a resemblance to how we’re living now, a merger is our best bet.”
In total, taxes on an average home in Lisbon would go up about $100 after the 10 years, something many Lisbon residents groaned about when hearing. After hearing multiple questions from angry people wondering why taxes would increase if the new municipality would have more people, Gehrke explained its because Lisbon residents will be getting additional services they don’t currently have.
“I love the way I live. I do,” said Joseph Osterman, a board supervisor. “That being said, if we look at the long term there aren’t a lot of options that make a lot of sense that keeps Lisbon the way it is now. We’re not going to have a lot of tax base. I don’t like my taxes. I don’t like paying them. Nobody does. But if we want to maintain somewhat of a resemblance to how we’re living now, a merger is our best bet.”
For residents with municipal water services, there would be a new fire hydrant fee, as well. However, Sussex will not force any former town residents to hook up to sewer and water services, so there are no concerns about those fees.
"I think we can do a better job. I’m for becoming a village, and maybe we can become a city and gobble up Sussex.”
In addition, the board addressed a list of pre-submitted questions from residents. They said hunting and fishing regulations wouldn’t change, Lisbon residents would benefit from an around-the-clock police force, school district boundaries wouldn’t change and the former Town of Lisbon would maintain its rural atmosphere.
Also, the Lisbon Town Board stressed how much money the town would save if a merger happened. An entirely new election would take place to elect a city council and jobs would be consolidated gradually as to avoid layoffs. Gehrke said Lisbon would save $50,000 a year just in attorney and engineering fees.
However, according to many residents, that still wasn’t good enough.
“I’ve been living out here for 33 years, and I’m in favor of trying to become a village again,” said Lisbon resident Dennis Plotecher. “I’m just against the whole program. I’m not for throwing in the towel. I think we can do a better job. I’m for becoming a village, and maybe we can become a city and gobble up Sussex.”
The crowd exploded with laughter and cheers, but Gehrke was quick to point out cities can’t annex villages.
But while many residents took the microphone to address their opposition to a merger, when the board quickly polled the crowd, a surprising number of people raised their hands in favor of a merger. There was close to an equal amount of hands raised to stay as is, to try and become a village and to merge with Sussex.
"I think it is time to look very seriously at this situation. I really, genuinely think we are finally taking a step forward.”
Some residents were even bold enough to take the microphone and support the merger, like lifelong resident Donna Zimmerman.
“My family has lived in the Town of Lisbon since 1844, so we’ve seen things change,” Zimmerman said. “I would like to stay how we are, but reality tells me, based on family history, that we’re headed in the right direction. I’ve been seeing this coming since the 1960s, and the reason why it didn’t happen sooner is because of personalities. We had personal fights between boards. I think it is time to look very seriously at this situation. I really, genuinely think we are finally taking a step forward.”
While not as loud as when Plotecher suggested annexing Sussex, the crowd reacted with applause and cheers.
And speaking of personal fights, hints of the infamous feud between board members even showed their colors during the meeting, if only for a brief moment. When asked why it was being named the City of Sussex-Lisbon, Gehrke moved to explain.
“Well, this name has not been finalized by any means,” Gehrke said. “The City of Sussex-Lisbon was only a suggestion. Sussex expressed an interest in keeping Sussex in the title, and if they do that, we want to keep Lisbon in the title. Now it’s just a matter of which name comes first.”
Attendees laughed along with Gehrke at the thought.
This was the first in a series of meetings regarding a possible merger. The next one will be held at Hamilton High School to better accommodate the large crowd, and Lisbon residents will each be receiving a letter in the mail when a date has been set.