Last week I had the privilege of presenting the (very) early results of a project focused on Wisconsin municipalities with less than 10,000 residents. The goal of this research is to gain perspectives from multiple audiences on the challenges facing Wisconsin’s smaller municipalities. To do this, I (and Douglas Ihrke from UW-Milwaukee) am surveying elected council and board members, municipal CEOs, and department heads in the 126 Wisconsin cities and 386 Wisconsin villages with less than 10,000 residents.
Why focus on these communities? First, a large majority of municipalities in Wisconsin are small (the average population of those under 10,000 is 1,460). While larger cities, quite understandably, get a lot of the research attention, these places are just as important to Wisconsin and just as fruitful a research topic. Second, these places are facing unique challenges…brain drain, financial struggles, changing immigration patterns, changing tourism patterns, and cuts to shared revenue to name a few. Third, Wisconsin’s smaller places are unique. Just yesterday I took the scenic route home from a weekend trip and explored Plain, Loganville, Rock Springs, Montello, Princeton, and a few other places. Just a quick look around and I could tell each of these places has a story that is part of Wisconsin’s cultural fabric.
Specifically, our survey asks about the group dynamics at play in these governments, the real and hoped for role of the nonprofit sector, the fiscal and management impacts of Act 10, the relationships between municipal management and employees, and a host of other issues related to the future health of Wisconsin’s small communities. Thus far, our results indicate mixed feeling surrounding Act 10, and reveal that communities are facing serious challenges related to economic development, reductions in shared revenue, and increasing state mandates. None of this is surprising, but it is sobering.
The end-goal is not just to give these communities a sounding board, but rather use what we find to help municipal managers and employees find research-supported solutions to overcome their very real struggles. For example, are there group dynamic-interventions that can be linked to improved outcomes? Is their capacity in the nonprofit sector to supplement some government functions? Are there untapped opportunities for collaboration between municipalities? Is there a better way for the state to distribute resources to municipalities? Do untapped revenue streams exist?
I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know the first step to finding answers is paying more attention to these municipalities. My co-researcher and I are hopeful this project can do just that.