An Abundance of Governments in Wisconsin

Wisconsin had the 11th-most local governments of any state in 2017, due in part to a tenfold increase in the last five decades in special-district governments that manage lakes, sewers, and sanitation, according to a new report by the independent, nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The breakdown includes 72 counties, 1,852 municipalities (cities, villages, and  towns), and 438 school districts (422 public school districts and 16 technical college districts), the report found.

While the overall tally of counties, municipalities, and school districts has barely changed since the 1967 Census of Governments, the number of special district governments increased from 62 to 734.

The abundance of governments has made overlapping responsibilities a longstanding concern. In the early 2000s, a major state panel now known as the “Kettl Commission” (named after commission chairman Donald Kettl) argued greater clarity and cooperation was needed at the local level to boost efficiency and accountability.

The report found the number of governments in a state often depends on its history, and therefore is largely regional. The framework for European settlement of much of the Midwest was established in 1787 by the Northwest Ordinance, which created a structure for six-mile-by-six-mile towns or “townships” that remains in place today. In part because of this, states like Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan also rank near the top of the states for number of governments.