Lawmakers Seek to End Miller Park Tax Sooner Than Planned

Jan 7, 2015

The five-county sales tax that's paying off Miller Park's debt is set to continue through at least 2018.
Credit Lynn Friedman, Flickr

While questions swirl about where and how Milwaukee might produce a new arena for the Bucks, one legislator is calling for an audit of the other professional sports facility here – Miller Park.

Republican Rep. Tom Weatherston of Racine says his goal is to retire Miller Park’s debt faster than currently planned. Many in Racine have never been fond of paying for sports venues in Milwaukee, and they’d like the practice to end.

Nearly 20 years ago, state and local politicians debated how to pay for a new major league baseball stadium in Milwaukee. Otherwise, the Brewers hinted they would leave town.

“I can assure you that there were many fights in which the city walked away, the county walked away, the state walked away, and the Brewers walked away. Not once. Not twice. Not three times. Not four times. But many times. And you know what happened? Every time somebody walked away, they would call us up the next day and say, let’s try again,” former Gov. Tommy Thompson said at a Marcus Economic Forum in September 1995.

They kept trying, and in 1995 – in the middle of the night – the Legislature created the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District. It would serve essentially as a landlord for Miller Park, and collect a .1 percent sales tax from five counties – Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Racine – until they paid off the debt for building the stadium.

When construction ended, that debt stood at $524 million. Today, the amount that remains is $195 million.

Kristy Kreklow, the stadium district’s finance manager, says planners originally thought they could retire the additional sales tax in 2014.

“That initial projection was based on certain assumptions, one of them being that sales tax revenues would grow by 5.5 percent a year. The district has seen about half of that growth,” Kreklow says.

Kreklow says the district now projects the tax will stay in place until at least 2018, and possibly longer.

“When we have the money for the future debt payments and obligations, that’s when we can sunset the sales tax,” she says.

One lawmaker who wants to see relief sooner than later is Rep. Tom Weatherston, a Republican from Caledonia. In the statement, Weatherston says if the sales tax stays in place until 2020, taxpayers will hand over $156 million more than expected.

He’s says he’s especially concerned about constituents in Racine County, because he doesn’t think Miller Park benefits them.

Weatherston has the support of Democratic colleague, Cory Mason, also of Racine.

“(The stadium district) needed this to build the stadium. Well, they’ve built the stadium and then some, and I think coming up on the 19th year of this tax being in place…when is this thing going to end, or was it written in such a way where they’re using a loophole in terms of the definition of maintenance where it’s just a blank check for them into perpetuity?” Mason says.

Back in the mid-90s, voters in Racine recalled their state senator, George Petak, for casting the deciding vote in favor of the five-county sales tax.

Today, Assemblyman Weatherston says constituents are worried that their tax money could be used to help build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s calling for an audit of the stadium district, saying it’s been allowed to operate with an unelected board and little public oversight or accountability.

Kristi Kreklow, the district’s finance manager, responded that under state law, the governor and local officials in the five taxing jurisdictions appoint the district’s 13 board members. And it posts all its meetings and financial documents online.

Kreklow says she can’t comment on efforts to review or change the stadium’s funding structure because she has not seen specific legislation.