This week, the small, relatively remote city of Wausau, Wisconsin (population: 38,000+; county seat of Marathon County; a little more than a three-hour drive from Milwaukee) made headlines for having the highest average credit score in the USA. The story detailed results of a nation-wide analysis performed by credit bureau Experian.

From USA Today, 11 October 2011:

Several other Midwestern cities are among the metro areas with the best credit scores, Experian said. Compared with the rest of the nation, they tend to have lower unemployment rates and less debt.

“Areas of the country that didn’t go crazy during the boom are probably still reaping the benefits in terms of their credit scores,” says Gerri Detweiler, personal finance expert for Credit.com.

Worth noting: this was the first year that Wausau was featured in the analysis, because its population reached a certain threshold in the most recent Census count. That’s a sign the city may have become a more desirable place to live and do business. Between 1990 and 2010, the population inched above 38,000 residents:

Wausau City, Wisconsin – Population Trend 1990-2010

Could sound public budgeting and growth planning make way for a more affordable cost of living, and thus, better credit scores for residents? The state income tax rate in Wisconsin is comparable to those in CNN Money’s “10 Best Places to Live in 2011.”  According to Kiplinger, Wausau residents’ income grew by about 6.2 percent between 2005 and 2009, and the cost of living index is at 96 (based on 100 as the national average).

Using Govistics to take  a closer look at how the city has fared in terms of spending and revenue during recent years, one can see that Wausau’s spending did outpace inflation from 1997-2008:

But so did revenues:

And if you drill down a bit more into revenues, you can see that property tax revenue has been on the up-and-up, perhaps due to that population increase:

The 2000 adaption of a Wausau Central Business District Master Plan reflected efforts to respond to growth, as did school construction projects during the first decade of the new millenium. Reductions in school spending  (on teacher salaries) and other conservative budgeting practices may have contributed to a lower cost of living. Significantly, it’s clear that the City of Wausau has been cutting its payrolls in recent years:

However, Wausau is facing a $1.1 million budget hole in 2012, largely due to cuts in state funding. In the 2008 budget, 30 percent of Wausau’s revenue came under Govistics’ “Miscellaneous” category. Nearly half of that represented state funding (the rest of that category is covered by things like donations, fines and forfeits, interest and dividends, transfer revenue, etc.). And state funding, totaling about $8.2 million in 2008, has been an area of concern for the city as of late:

In addition, personnel costs are rising in Wausau due to changes to collective bargaining agreements. Also, because of a statewide property tax cap, local government leaders can’t increase local property tax rates by more than 1.5 percent.

So it’s likely that Wausau’s spending and payroll trendlines will have to drop steeply to plug this budget hole. If local government leaders maintain their personal finances as conservatively as Experian’s report indicates, maybe we can expect to see those practices applied to the city budget to help alleviate these concerns.

It will be interesting to see how Wausau’s Govistics profile will change when the next batch of U.S. Census of Governments data becomes available in 2012 (the source for most Govistics data).