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Research Aid: Wisconsin Taxation Procedures

Assessment and tax rolls are useful sources for determining land ownership and property development. However, these records are difficult to use because of changes in how the information was recorded.

The following brief synopsis gives a general overview of Wisconsin tax procedures.

Although the basic procedure for collecting taxes and selling land for unpaid taxes remained the same from 1858 to 1955, many details changed. The most common change was the date in which an activity was to take place. Major changes also took place in the city of Milwaukee, beginning in 1915, with the establishment of assessment districts that did not correspond to city wards.

The taxation procedure took about one year to complete. The assessment rolls were completed by June; tax rolls were delivered to the local treasurer in July; taxes were collected in December or the following January; and any land was sold for unpaid taxes in May or June. The process then began again.

Rules from the following sampled years provide information on the procedures: 1858, 1898, 1915, 1935, and 1955, with a few notes from 1869 dealing with the city of Milwaukee. All information, except where noted, is in the Wisconsin Statutes. The citations refer to the year of the Statutes and the section number. For example, “(1915:1030a)” refers to section 1030a of the Wisconsin Statutes of 1915. All citations to the Wisconsin Statutes of 1858 are to the appropriate section in Chapter 18.

  1. Assessors were responsible for creating the assessment roll. Each locality had one assessor. In 1869, the state legislature divided Milwaukee into five assessment districts and created the position of tax commissioner for the city. The districts consisted of one or two wards. In July 1915, to deal more effectively with Milwaukee’s growing population, the legislature divided the city into sixteen assessment districts. The new districts did not follow ward boundaries. (Laws of Wisconsin, 1869: Chap. 299; 1915:1030a)
  2. The assessors began computing their assessments between January and June; the specific dates changed through the years. (1858:16; 1898 and 1915:1033; 1935 and 1955:70.10)
  3. The assessors opened the books to the public for ten days in July. For Milwaukee, after 1915 the assessors delivered the assessment rolls to the tax commissioner who made the books available to the public. The assessors and tax commissioner made changes as necessary. (1858:32; 1898:1061; 1915:1030m; 1935 and 1955:70.07, 70.45)
  4. For most communities, the assessors delivered the assessment rolls to the Board of Review in August. The Board heard any complaints and adjusted the rolls. In early years the assessors delivered the rolls to the clerk of the county Board of Supervisors in August. For Milwaukee, the tax commissioner, not the assessors, delivered the assessment rolls to the Board of Review. (1858:37; 1898 and 1915:1060-1061; 1935 and 1955:70.46-70.47)
  5. For most communities the assessor delivered the adjusted roll to the local clerk after the Board hearing. In early years, the rolls were sent to the clerk of the county Board of Supervisors and then to the local clerks. For Milwaukee after 1915, the Board of Review sent the assessment rolls back to the tax commissioner. (1858:37; 1898:1064; 1915:1064 and 1064a; 1935 and 1955:70.51)
  6. The local clerk wrote out the tax rolls based on the now-completed assessment rolls and levies ordered by the state and county. For Milwaukee after 1915, the tax commissioner wrote out the tax rolls. (1858:60; 1898:1078; 1915:1064a, 1078; 1935 and 1955:70.51, 70.65)
  7. The tax rolls were delivered to the local treasurer in December. (1858:60; 1898:1081; 1915:1081; 1935:70.68; 1955:70.68)
  8. The local treasurer posted notices that taxes were due in late December or early January of the following year; the specific date changed through the years. (1858:70; 1898:1089; 1915:1089; 1935:74.02; 1955: 74.02)
  9. The local treasurer gave the property owner a copy of a tax receipt, keeping one copy in a stub book. After comparing the stubs against the tax roll, the tax roll was sent to the county treasurer, who was to file them with the county clerk. In many communities, however, the treasurer kept the records. (1858:74; 1898 and 1915:1096; 1935 and 1955:74.09)
  10. The local treasurer notified the appropriate justice of the peace of any unpaid personal property taxes. If the justice found the property owner guilty, the justice could rule that the taxes, court costs, and penalties be paid. The judgement was sent to the clerk of the county court, who actually ordered the implementation of the justice’s decision. The property owner could appeal to the circuit court itself. (1858:81-84; 1898 and 1915:1100-1104; 1935 and 1955:74.11).
  11. The local treasurer usually submitted a list of delinquent taxpayers to the county treasurer in February; however, the date changed through the years. (1858:93; 1898 and 1915:1112; 1935:74.17; 1955: 74.03, 74.17)
  12. All delinquent taxes belonged to the county and were collected by the county treasurer. (1858:99-100; 1898 and 1915:1114; 1935 and 1955:74.19)
  13. The county treasurer made a list of people owing taxes and, within thirty days, sent the sheriff to collect them. (1858:100-101; 1898 and 1915:1126-1127; 1935 and 1955:74.29-74.30)
  14. If the unpaid taxes were not collected, the county treasurer sold the land at public auction, which usually took place in May or June. The auctions continued until all the land was purchased. If the land could not be sold, the county treasurer purchased it at cost. (1858:121, 124; 1898 and 1915:1130, 1138; 1935:74.33; 1955:74.33, 74.42)
  15. At the time of the purchase, the county treasurer gave a certificate of sale to the purchaser. The land could not be officially transferred until three years from the date of sale in order to give the original owner a chance to pay the taxes and penalties. During the Great Depression, the owner was given five years to pay the back taxes and penalties. Before the unredeemed land could actually be conveyed to the new owner, the county treasurer was required to post notices, usually to six to ten months before the transfer was scheduled to take place. (1858:116, 127, 135; 1898 and 1915:1140, 1165, 1170; 1935:74.46, 75.01, 75.07; 1955:74.46, 75.07)
  16. The county, usually through the treasurer, was permitted to sell any land conveyed to the county for non-payment of taxes. (1858:134; 1898 and 1915:1192; 1935 and 1955:75.34)