Municipalities across Wisconsin are facing budget challenges and are increasingly utilizing referenda to increase the property tax levy to fund critical services, such as fire, EMS and police. As municipalities across the state consider going to referendum, here are six things to know as you begin the process.
With four elections on the calendar in 2024, Wisconsin municipalities will have multiple opportunities to bring referendum questions before voters. When weighing which election to target, make sure to evaluate what timing works best for your community and consider what other items will be on each ballot, such as school referenda. For example, though the November 2024 general election will have high voter turnout compared to February, April or August elections, the lengthy presidential ballot, flooded mailboxes, and a sharp increase in political advertisements may overshadow local issues – making it more challenging for local issues to stand out.
Once you have determined when to go to referendum, it’s important to be aware of deadlines related to drafting, submitting and securing referendum question approval by your municipality’s governing body. All referendum questions must be submitted and approved 70 days before the election. For additional information on how to phrase your referendum question, visit the Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s website.
Once you’ve determined when you want your referendum question to appear on the ballot, it’s important to conduct conversations with key audiences within your municipality to help them understand the need at hand.
Be sure to connect early - and often - with these individuals, in order to clearly convey your community's needs, explaining the problem at hand and the research that’s already been done.
Outline the proposed solution to address the community’s needs, and provide a space for questions and opportunities to get involved. Securing support from these leaders will help them act as ambassadors, helping spread the word about the community’s needs and support an effective public-education campaign.
The most important stakeholders in any referendum campaign are the voters themselves. As community members are the ones to determine the outcome of the referendum, it is critical that they fully understand the reasoning and rationale behind the funding request.
An effective public education campaign will communicate all potential outcomes of a referendum – both positive and negative. The success of any referendum campaign starts with building an understanding of what the community needs, and the solutions available.
For many communities, Mueller Communications recommends a three-phased approach to educate and engage community members.
Phase I: Options Assessment (timing 8-10 weeks)
Mueller Communications works with each community to document its challenges and the options to meet those challenges. Based on that research, our team develops a comprehensive Options Assessment that can be presented to city officials, posted on your municipality’s website and used to educate residents about the critical needs facing the community (e.g., public safety) and the options available to address them (e.g., increasing property tax via referendum).
Phase II: Community Survey (timing: 8-10 weeks)
To provide a voice to residents, Mueller Communications partners with a third-party vendor to develop a survey that is distributed to all homes in the community. The survey process serves as a key educational opportunity as well as a mechanism for the community to provide feedback on the services it values. The final results, including a comprehensive analysis, help guide your community in which option to pursue and the details of approach (e.g., single referendum question or multiple, price point, etc.).
Phase III: Public Education (timing 12-16 weeks)
To help showcase the need for the referendum and its impact on the community, Mueller Communications develops and executes a broad public information and education campaign that clearly articulates the need for additional resources and the impact on residents if the referendum passes or fails.
ENGAGING A PARTNER
If your community is considering a referendum, we recommend developing your communications and education approach prior to a formal vote to proceed with the referendum. Our team at Mueller would welcome the opportunity to meet with leaders of your community to learn about the current state, needs and possible challenges facing your municipality.
Engaging with professional communications support well in advance of the first formal steps of a referendum enables sufficient time to lay the groundwork needed to educate and mobilize the community. With Mueller Communications' guidance, municipalities can run an optimized campaign that informs voters when it matters most.
EDUCATION VS. ADVOCACY
Elected officials, government workers and third parties hired by a local municipality are fully empowered to educate the public on the need for a referendum and the challenges facing your community. It is important to ensure that your efforts are carefully crafted to focus on educating voters about the facts of the referendum, rather than advocating for a specific outcome.
Download this resource for a summary of activities that are permitted and prohibited activities.
Ready to get started? Email referendum@muellercommunications or call (414) 390-5500 to be connected with a member of our team.