City Cast

The Difference Between the Town and the City of Madison

Hayley Sperling
Hayley Sperling
Posted on September 10   |   Updated on September 12
Illustration by Hayley Sperling, Map via Shutterstock

Illustration by Hayley Sperling, Map via Shutterstock

When you say “Madison,” are you talking about the Town of Madison or the City of Madison?

Because there’s a difference.

There are in fact two Madisons in Dane County — but there won’t be for much longer.

Soon, the town will be formally "attached" to the city. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway announced she would allocate more than $1 million of the city’s 2022 operating budget to ensure a smooth transition. But the question lingers — what the hell is the difference between the Town of Madison and the City of Madison? And how did it get this way?

This story dates back to the early nineteenth century when approximately 36 square miles was organized into the Town of Madison on Feb. 2, 1846. At the time, according to a 2016 article from the Cap Times, “the town spanned across six miles north and south between County Trunk Highway K and just south of what is now the West Beltline Highway, and six miles east and west between Sherman Avenue and west of Whitney Way.”

A decade later in 1856, the Wisconsin State Legislature chartered the City of Madison, absorbing most of the eponymous town but leaving a fraction of unincorporated land to exist as a separate entity — the Town of Madison. Throughout the next century, more and more of the town’s land was annexed or incorporated into the City of Madison, Village of Shorewood Hills, and Village of Maple Bluff.

Today, the Town of Madison covers less than four square miles. It’s not a geographically contiguous place, either: It exists in fragments dotting the south and east sides of the city. It has its share of bragging rights — technically the Alliant Energy Center is in the Town of Madison. It’s also obscure enough that some Town of Madison residents don’t always realize they are not City of Madison residents, including, awkwardly, people who’ve tried to run for City of Madison elected offices. The town operates its own police, fire, and paramedic services, as well as sewer, public works department and municipal court. But by Oct. 31, 2022, it will be gone.

In 2003, the Cities of Madison and Fitchburg signed an agreement with the town to gradually absorb its remaining land and services. On Nov. 1, 2020, the City of Madison began providing fire, emergency medical, and building inspection services to the town under the terms of the intergovernmental agreement. Officially, dissolving the town and wrapping up its business is called the “Final Attachment” (a bit ominous, but sure).

When the town is officially dissolved, all current town government employees have been assured a job with either the City of Madison or Fitchburg. In addition to new employees, the City of Madison stands to gain 5,000 new residents from the attachment. This group of incoming City of Madisonians is much more diverse than the city’s current population. According to census data, more than 27% of the town of Madison’s population is Hispanic compared to 7% in the city; And the town’s Black population is 13% compared to 7.3% in Madison.

A public hearing on the attachment process was held Sept. 15 and several more informational sessions are planned before the Final Attachment occurs and the Town of Madison ceases to exist.

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