What Are They and How Do They Work?
A special charge is a fee that a municipality may impose to collect reimbursement for the cost of services rendered to a property. The authority to use special charges is expressly granted to municipalities by statute: Wis. Stat. § 66.0627.
Examples of such services include: snow and ice removal, weed elimination, garbage and refuse disposal, tree care and dead animal disposal. This list is not exhaustive, but it creates an idea of what is a considered a service for a special charge. The special charge need only be a service to the property, and not necessarily a benefit to the property owner. Rusk v. City of Milwaukee, 2007 WI App 7, 298 Wis. 2d 407, 727 N.W.2d 358. The property owner may not see it as a benefit, or even want or agree to the service in many cases. But as long as it truly is a service to the property, it can be made payable by the property owner.
Special charges should be billed directly to the property owner after the service has been completed. The amount of a special charge must have a reasonable relation to the actual cost borne by the municipality providing the service. A special charge is not a tax, and the purpose of a special charge is not to generate revenue for the municipality; rather, it is an enforcement tool in the municipality’s regulatory power toolbox. Special charges are collection devices and are limited to services rendered.
The procedures for collecting a special charge are relatively simple. Once a property owner is billed for a special charge, if they pay within a reasonable time, that’s it. The deadline is at the discretion of the governing body, although it should be reasonable (30 days is common). If the payment is not received by the deadline, the special charge becomes a lien on the property, and the municipality can include the sum of the charge on the tax roll for collection and settlement. (Special charges are not payable in installments.)
A special charge can help a municipality recover the costs of providing unique services to property owners such as weed removal. This may be a good option for municipalities struggling to maintain a budget for more general municipal services like roads, police and fire protection.
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