2015 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

Trouble with Taxes

Raquel Rutledge, Kevin Crowe, Allan James Vestal, Bill Schulz, Erin Caughey

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom


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About the Project

Most reporters relish getting juicy tips about foul-ups by public officials, but many would have thought twice about pursuing this one.

The tip: Assessors in a Milwaukee suburb had hired a private firm that was doing shoddy work, frequently setting the value of homes at the sales price, something that undermined the fairness of the overall system.

Fortunately for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers, investigative reporter Raquel Rutledge was the one on the receiving end of the call. She immediately recognized the potential scope of the problem, identified a way to measure the effectiveness of assessors and — teamed with data reporter Kevin Crowe — tackled the topic with determination and precision.

The two discovered the state’s property assessment system — founded in the late 1700s on fairness and enshrined in the state Constitution — is rife with problems.

Assessors across Wisconsin routinely violate the state constitution while regulators ignore the practice; in dozens of communities 20% or more of taxes are paid by the wrong people; and assessors in 15% of municipalities are doing “poor” work by the state’s own definition. What’s more, faced with budget belt-tightening, public officials in Wisconsin increasingly have turned to largely unaccountable private firms to do the work.

In their “Trouble with Taxes” investigation, Rutledge and Crowe used rigorous research methods, scores of documents and large data sets to penetrate a subject that impacts every property owner in Wisconsin but that few understand.

But this is not an ordinary presentation of watchdog work.

The project begins with a bright video produced by Bill Schulz that explains the complicated problem in simple terms. It includes a simple, visuals-driven summary of how we identified problems — and a statewide database that let readers see how their community stacks up by those measures.

In the Milwaukee metropolitan area, readers could dig further — much further.

Interactive maps designed by news applications developer Allan James Vestal provided a first-ever picture of how their own home’s value has changed compared with their neighbors in recent years and included details from every residential property in five counties in southeastern Wisconsin. All of the pieces were presented in a clean, intuitive and responsive manner by online producer Erin Caughey.

The investigation found that while the assessment disparities hit homeowners in their wallets, most have no clue as to what is behind their tax increases.

Consider James and Barbara Fleischman, who have lived in their five-bedroom ranch in a Milwaukee suburb for three decades. In recent years, the assessed value of their house hovered around $331,400 and they paid about the same in property taxes as their next-door neighbor. Then the house next door was sold and the new neighbor sought and received a 22% reduction in his property value — even though the constitution forbids such changes in isolation.

And the Fleishmans — and everyone else in the community who did not get a reduction — paid more. When increases in the community’s overall tax levy were factored in, their property tax bill went up $640.

The neighbor’s bill? Down $1,642.

The same scenario was playing out — undetected and unnoticed — in communities across the state, over and over again.

As one expert put it: “Everybody and their uncle can recognize a pothole when they go over it. Nobody can recognize a poor assessment job.”

In response to the investigation, state lawmakers are moving to give regulators more teeth for dealing with poor-performing assessors and even requiring more frequent communitywide updates to ensure that values are balanced out more regularly.