By Mike Heine and Chris Schultz
(Published April 17, 2007, 10:38 a.m.)
This may not be news to those who are looking to buy property in Walworth County, but a recent study says property values are the highest in the region.
The study by the nonpartisan government watchdog group Public Policy Forum shows that Walworth County took the lead in the seven-county southeastern Wisconsin region in per-capita property value in 2006. It edged perennial leader Waukesha County, $132,931 to $130,348.
The study said Walworth County's per-capita property value grew 12.8 percent from 2005 to 2006.
"What it means is there is a lot of wealth in Walworth County," said Jeff Browne, president of Public Policy Forum.
"It certainly speaks well for the region's ability to provide high-quality services and all of the things government does-schools, technical education, infrastructure, streets, roads, public safety. All of those things depend on the ability to raise property taxes or provide through property taxes."
The study covers Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha counties.
Fred Burkhardt, executive vice president of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance, said the study contains good and bad news.
The higher values show that the county can attract a better-trained workforce, making it more desirable for commercial or industrial development.
However, higher property values can be a burden to lower-income families because of higher rents and property taxes, Burkhardt said.
"The report is clear evidence that Walworth County needs an economic development plan," Burkhardt said. "It is an economic engine in southeast Wisconsin. We can't continue to operate on an ad hoc basis.
"Everyone says we don't want to be like Chicago, Milwaukee or Los Angeles, but if we don't have a plan, that's what we'll become."
Illinois residents are moving to the county looking for better deals on property than they can get south of the border, Browne said.
"We've found in different studies that we've done that as Chicago goes, so goes our region in southeast Wisconsin. Most growth is coming across the border into Walworth and Kenosha counties."
Mike VanderBunt of the Lakes Area Realtors Association attributes much of the value increase to prices that Illinois residents are willing to pay for properties.
The area around Delavan, Geneva and Como lakes forms the epicenter of the county's property value eruption, VanderBunt said.
According to the study, Fontana on the west end of Geneva Lake had the largest tax base increase in the seven-county area at 26.1 percent.
Part of Fontana's 26 percent bump might be due to renovations at the Abbey Resort & Spa, said Jim Celano, director of the Geneva Lake Conservancy. Lakefront property also remains hot, he said.
Also, last year's property reassessments probably contributed, he said.
Celano said property taxes for the conservancy, which owns its office at 398 Mill St., Fontana, doubled because of the reassessment.
Russ Kashian, professor of economics at UW-Whitewater, wasn't overly impressed with Walworth County's newfound No. 1 status.
"It's a little misleading," Kashian said.
Dividing the county's property value by the population doesn't take into account the Illinois residents who own summer homes and other property in Walworth County, he said.
On the other hand, "it shows we have enormous property tax potential," Kashian said.
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