Three things I knew almost nothing about when I got a tip from a software engineer that something was gravely wrong with the property tax system in Wisconsin.
The tipster used those terms to explain that assessors statewide were violating the constitution by making adjustments to individual properties when they shouldn’t.
Seems like a somewhat simple concept. But how would we prove—or disprove—it and ultimately how would we show it? Who is to say whether a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch on Willow Street should be assessed at $300,000 but the similar one across the street should be valued at $275,000? What are all the factors that should be considered?
Like many things about which I end up investigating, I was not familiar with the details surrounding how values were set in Wisconsin other than that the 1,852 municipalities were each responsible for their own.
So I set out to learn how the system is supposed to work. I researched the policies, regulations, and history and interviewed assessors and former assessors, regulators, real estate brokers, and homeowners.
At every turn, I was keeping in mind the big questions: what documents and records exist? How are the data kept? What data points might be relevant?
That’s where the coefficients of dispersion and other key measurements arose. Understanding the statistical measurement and other data about sales prices and values would be critical to showing what was happening.
Data reporter Kevin Crowe and I obtained databases from the state Department of Revenue, counties, cities, and municipalities and (after lots of cleaning and other magic by Kevin) began sorting and calculating.
We could soon see the worst offending assessors in the state. We could formulate an understanding of just how poor their work was and most importantly, what that meant to the tax-paying public.
We found dozens of communities where 20 percent or more of the property taxes were being paid by the wrong people. We found municipalities hiring contract assessors who did cursory work. We discovered homeowners—unaware of the skewed system—paying far more than their “fair share.”
And we exposed a lax state oversight system with regulators and legislators failing to address the issue.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was presenting this information to readers in a way that would not trigger a sleep-induced coma. We tried to write simply, use graphics and charts, and—with the help of Allan James Vestal—we mapped every residential property in five counties so readers could see the impact on their properties and their neighborhoods.
Best of all, we included a two-minute video, produced by Bill Schulz, that summarized the issue cleanly, colorfully, and with a touch of humor. A definite plus when dealing with a complex and often dull topic such as property taxes.