Amid the smoke and mirrors is the hard reality that some $100 million could land on the local tax rolls.
Let’s take a closer look at the $250 million in public financing that, at the moment, is on the table to build a new Bucks arena in Downtown Milwaukee and prevent the team from moving to Seattle, or to St. Louis, or to Kansas City.
First of all, why $250 million? That’s what you get when you subtract the private sector’s already-promised contribution – a combined $250 million from the team’s current owners (led by Wes Edens and Marc Lasry) and past patriarch (former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl) – from the total cost of the proposed arena, $500 million.
Such is the magic number, 500. Debate in recent days and weeks has centered on how to get there, and Edens and Lasry won’t be riding to the rescue. They’ve already said they won’t be committing more than the $150 million tallied above. Gov. Scott Walker’s initial plan, one of the largest proposed, would have secured $220 million by setting aside income taxes paid by pro basketball players in the state, but it fizzled out quickly.
Republicans in the state Legislature, led by State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), deemed it too large a contribution by the state and proposed $150 million instead, leaving a $100 million gap for the city and county to fill.
That’s a lot of money, even for the state’s two largest units of local government. Speaking to Milwaukee Magazine last week, Downtown Ald. Bob Baumann argued that drumming up $100 million in local funds was just not possible, and Mayor Tom Barrett’s initial proposal, worth $25 million, consisted largely of contributing real estate and infrastructure improvements to the project. County Executive Chris Abele is said to be working on a “grand bargain” of sorts, but details are scarce.
Fitzgerald has suggested that the city and county draw from the same resource he’s proposing for the state’s $150 million – the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. And it’s a bit like state officials have discovered a money tree. The solution seems simple: the city and county take out low interest loans of $25 million (or $50 million) from the BCPL (which controls almost $1 billion in assets), combine these monies with whatever bonding scheme the state has cooked up, and there’s 500. Crisis resolved.
So far, the state plan discussed (and leaked) involves the state Legislature creating a local stadium district that could sell bonds to the BCPL, thereby raising $150 million and setting up a schedule for some form of revenue stream to repay the debt over about 20 years. What this will be, exactly, would have to be determined. Lambeau Field’s stadium district raised about $67 million from the BCPL in this way, but this was only a small chunk of the renovation’s $295 million price tag. The lifeblood of the stadium makeover was a 0.5 percent sales tax approved by voters in Brown County, not a re-shuffling of bond holdings at an obscure state agency.
Lawmakers could create a sales tax in Milwaukee County, or in the five-county area, to pay for an arena. But there’s little will among Wisconsin Republicans for such a solution. Walker’s income tax proposal, which comes pre-anointed by the conservative hero, could still be modified to cover repayment of the state’s debt, or much of it.
But where will the local money come from?
Barrett has partially ruled out a solution familiar to the city, creating a Tax Incremental Financing district that would help to pay for the project using future increases in the tax base. This is because the stadium will probably be tax-exempt, and so there will be no increases. The possibility remains of draping a TIF district around whatever ancillary investments spring up around the new arena, but by skipping the stadium itself, this approach would miss the development’s beating heart.
That leaves property taxes.
Walker and the legislature have imposed strict limits on increasing local tax levies, very strict limits. But there’s a Swiss cheese of exceptions – and one of them includes raising the levy to make payments on “general obligation debt service,” just the sort of thing that the BCPL is very good at issuing to local governments around the state. In fact, it issued about $122 million in loans to Wisconsin municipalities and school districts in fiscal year 2014 and is already calculating how it could withstand a $150 million loan on behalf of the state.
“We believe we can do this,” says executive secretary Tia Nelson, “and it has this beautiful benefit of 96 cents on each dollar going to Wisconsin schools.” (Most of BCPL’s investment income goes to fund school libraries in the state.)
If the BCPL also lends a chunk – $25 or $50 million – to the city, county, or both, state law would require each entity to raise its tax levy by an amount sufficient to pay off the resulting debt service on the loan. This tax would have to be “separately designated” and calculated apart from the usual municipal levy. And to boot, it would be “irrepealable until the loan and all interest on the loan are fully paid.” If for some reason the local government was to miss a payment, it would be automatically deducted from state aid.
The BCPL boasts that it’s never had a loan default, and this is why.
Curt Witynski, assistant director of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, says that if Milwaukee is “getting a loan from any source, be it from the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands or some kind of bonding, the revenue source would have to be property taxes unless these were some kind of revenue-based bonds.”
Revenue bonds (which the BCPL also issues) set aside income generated by a project to pay for the debt associated with it. Witynski gives the example of a parking garage built on loaned money. Cities may also use certain TIF monies as a funding stream for revenue bonds – but, as mentioned above, any TIF laid down would probably skip over the stadium itself.
“The tools that are available to cities are pretty limited,” says Witynski. He says Milwaukee could “theoretically” borrow arena funding from the BCPL, or another lender, and raise property taxes to pay off the loans.
“Politically, I don’t know if the mayor wants to do that,” he says.
Barrett’s office wasn’t available for comment on Friday. In February, the mayor said in an interview – one responding to Walker’s $220 million plan when it still seemed viable – “I’m not going to raise property taxes for this arena … The governor made a pledge that he was not going to raise taxes to finance this. I’m making the same pledge.”
Communicating by email, Barrett’s chief of staff simply told the Journal Sentinel over the weekend that “The mayor continues to work on a fair and equitable local share that will be a part of the total state, local and private investment package, and appreciates the efforts being put forward by the governor, County Executive Abele, Senator Fitzgerald and [Assembly] Speaker [Robin] Vos.”
A question included in the Marquette Poll released on Thursday asked survey takers if they supported “borrowing $150 million to support a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.” Statewide, 79 percent said they opposed such a deal, and Marquette reported that within the “Milwaukee media market,” 67 percent still registered their disapproval.
Taking on new debt isn’t the only option available for Milwaukee to drum up enough arena funding, but it’s the most obvious and could have the ultimate effect of pushing at least part of the arena burden onto homeowners. Wisconsin cities and towns take out loans from the BCPL all the time to buy new fire trucks and finance new buildings.
“There’s no secret or other new revenue source,” Witynski says, “other than property taxes.”
UPDATE: Added more info on recent comments by the mayor’s office.