Miller Park Tax Ends in 2020. Not.
Despite “sunset,” taxpayers will subsidize stadium until 2040, with total costs unknown.
It happens every spring. That’s when baseball fans get ready for opening day and America’s pastime, and when the press annually returns to the issue of the Miller Park tax subsidy. In anticipation of this, the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District issues its now-yearly “Sunset Date Report,” a projection on when the sales tax paying for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball stadium will end.
That’s technically true, but quite misleading. For it suggests we will no longer be paying to subsidize a for-profit Major League Baseball franchise worth $925 million and owned by mega-wealthy money manager Mark Attanasio. But in fact we will actually be subsidizing the ever-more valuable team and ever-richer owner at least through 2040 — if not forever.
In addition, the stadium authority is putting aside money to pay for any expenses that may arise for capital costs: perhaps for a new scoreboard or maybe a new engine, or “bogey,” that moves panels of the convertible roof along a semi-circular rail system. (A replacement bogey cost $13 million at the end of the 2006 season.)
As of 2016, the total money salted away was $52 million, Duckett told me. It will likely be a good deal higher by 2020. (Duckett was out of town and not available to offer any updates.) The entire reserve is being collected from taxpayers ahead of time, to assure we continue subsidizing the Brewers for the next two decades.
The Miller Park tax has been collected from Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Racine counties since 1996. The earliest projections were that the tax would sunset around 2010, but that was moved back to 2014 and then over time to 2017, 2018 and then early 2020.
Duckett told the Racine Journal Times that the economic downturn caused a reduction in sales tax collections, which explains the ever longer payoff date for the stadium. But the downtown has also meant far lower interest rates, which has allowed the stadium authority to repeatedly refinance the bonds issued to pay for Miller Park’s construction. The bonds were refinanced in 1998, again in 2001, and the district’s latest financial statement says it did “debt defeasances” in 2005, 2008, 2015 and 2016 which I’m guessing involved refinancing, though the report doesn’t address this.
“Every decision we make is made with the goal of turning off this tax as soon as possible,” Duckett recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In fact there is a long list of additional expenses the district incurred over the years, including:
-$15 million (over five years) for the stadium authority’s administrative and operating costs;
-A new $11 million scoreboard, with taxpayers paying $5.9 million of the cost;
-$4.9 million on furniture and equipment the Brewers requested, including a whirlpool bath, ice machines, sauna and steam room, batting and pitching machines, exercise equipment and video coaching system;
-$3.9 million for an LED ribbon board encircling the stadium’s seating bowl;
-$1.6 million on public relations (over six years) to make the stadium authority look good.
The “sunset date” and even the total of sales taxes paid doesn’t tell us the total bill paid by taxpayers, because some of that money was recouped through refinancing, with all the gains retained by the stadium authority. And none of this is accounted for by the stadium authority, whose website offers little information or transparency for taxpayers: there is no update on added costs, no annual budgets going back in time, no summary of money saved through refinancing, no link to audit bureau reports, and no link to the original law and memorandum of understanding that is supposed to govern the authority’s decision making.
For that matter, there are no press releases to be found. For instance, a press release explaining when and why the stadium’s board decided to extend the tax subsidy to 2040, meaning the lease will last 40 years, well beyond the 30-year period repeatedly noted in the media and described that way in a Legislative Audit Bureau report.
Back in 2015 State Rep. Tom Weatherston (R-Caledonia) introduced legislation that would prevent the stadium district board from refinancing and adding to the stadium debt and in 2016 he called for an audit of “exactly how much money is collected and how it is spent.”
Both proposals went nowhere. When it comes to subsidizing the Milwaukee Brewers, the taxpayers don’t seem to matter.
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