Why Miller Park’s Tax Never Ends
Perhaps because the stadium’s public board cares more about the team than taxpayers.
It’s the opening of another baseball season, and Miller Park, with its distinctive retractable roof, has helped make games in this chilly spring very comfortable. But the price tag for taxpayers is considerable. The five-county sales tax paying for the stadium and its never ending maintenance and fancy improvements was originally supposed to sunset in 2010, but the date keep getting moved back. The latest projections are that the tax will end no later than 2020.
Why did it go so much longer — and cost so much more in taxes — than originally projected?
From the beginning the public board set up to oversee Miller Park was a jury-rigged operation meant to go over the heads of local taxpayers. The five-county sales tax hadn’t been approved by local officials of those counties or by its taxpayers. It had been imposed by a majority vote of legislators, most of whom didn’t represent those five counties.
The 13-member board of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District includes six members appointed by the governor, two by the Milwaukee County, and one each by Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Racine counties and the City of Milwaukee. The crafty thing about this structure is the power is so disbursed that any objections by citizenry to the continuing tax are largely irrelevant. For years, Racine-area politicians have complained about the tax, but with just one vote on the board, they can easily be ignored.
The board members, all unpaid, are supposed to represent their particular government, but for the six members appointed by the governor, there is really nothing at stake financially: the tax has no impact on the state budget. The other seven members undoubtedly care about the tax impact on the county (or city) they represent, but they also have to worry about keeping the Brewers happy: they don’t want to be the board that lost the state its professional baseball team. And other than the one representative from Racine, it’s likely the other 12 members hear far more from the Brewers and their needs than from any taxpayers. And so, what has happened over time is that the board and their executive director, Mike Duckett (a half-time paid consultant), inevitably make agreements increasing what the tax pays for.
Milwaukee Magazine’s Matt Hrodey did a 2014 story tabulating the huge list of stadium improvements financed by taxpayers in recent years, including “floor insulation for the stadium’s administrative offices (about $39,900), new carpeting on the specially ticketed Club Level ($268,600), an LED ‘ribbon board’ encircling the seating bowl ($3.1 million), a high-definition scoreboard ($5.9 million), new flooring for the dugouts ($84,700), retractable windows on the sweltering Terrace Level ($234,200) and a replacement ‘matrix board’ for a billboard facing Interstate 94 ($484,800).”
Early on there were disputes about the Segregated Reserve Fund, to which both the team and board contribute to pay for stadium maintenance, over whether it paid for major breakdowns or normal wear and tear. As Hrodey reports: “Duckett says the district ‘thought we were going to argue forever over what’s routine maintenance and a major capital repair,’ so the two sides reached a compromise, albeit one that favors the Brewers.”
The result: Duckett and the board in 2001 agreed to revise the original lease, signed with the Brewers in 1996, to increase the district’s yearly Segregated Reserve Fund contribution from $700,000 to about $1.75 million. Over the 40 year life of the stadium, which Duckett says is the goal, that’s an increase of $42 million in the costs for taxpayers — all quietly approved without their knowing.
Duckett tells me the $1.75 million annual payment will over time increase, to a maximum of $2.2 million by 2030, further increasing the taxpayer costs. He claims an increase was required by the original lease agreement of 1996, a “40 or 50 page document,” he notes. As it happens, a copy of the lease is not among the documents available to be viewed at the stadium board’s website.
And that’s just money for the smaller costs. What if the retractable roof falls apart? The roof panels are each powered by a 60-horsepower engine, or “bogey,” that moves along a semi-circular rail system; at the end of the 2006 season, the bogie system was replaced at a cost of over $13 million. The Mitsubishi company, which built the roof, paid for this, in response to a suit by the board. But who will buy new bogeys the next time they are needed? The taxpayers.
With this in mind, in March the stadium board approved a “master plan” that projects the sales tax will end sometime between 2018 and 2020 and most likely in 2019. The tax must keep going until it pays for all estimated costs until 2040 for the annual segregated reserve fund, plus estimated additional costs that may arise for various capital costs. The money is in three different pots and totals $52 million, Duckett says.
Why are taxpayers being asked to pay for future costs that may never arise? Simple. If the board doesn’t have the money to pay for a new bogey, in say, 2029, it would have to go back to the five counties and ask for more money. Fat chance of Racine saying yes, which would make it harder for any other county to approve the spending. So instead the sales tax will simply continue collecting money from us. If by 2040 it turns out the entire $52 million isn’t needed, the remainder will be split up by the five counties.
Call me a cynic, but I’m confident the Brewers will find ways to spend the entire $52 million through various requests for upgrades.
As of Dec. 31, 2014 the total cost to taxpayers was $524 million (and that doesn’t include at least a half-billion dollars in local, state and federal tax exemptions), but the total bill will undoubtedly rise higher as a result of the master plan that’s been approved. Precisely how much in additional taxes this involves has so far not been revealed to taxpayers. The important thing is to keep the Brewers happy.