Boots & Sabers

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Tag: Milwaukee

Wisconsin Center District breaks ground on money pit

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week.

The Wisconsin Center District broke ground on a huge expansion of Milwaukee’s convention center including a 112,000-square-foot expansion of the expo hall. On the heels of a pandemic and at a cost of $420 million, they must be high.

 

The Wisconsin Center District is a government entity that runs the Wisconsin Center (convention center), UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, and Miller High Life Theatre. It also owns Fiserv Forum, but that venue is operated by the Milwaukee Bucks. The WCD is funded by revenue from operating the venues, a special sales tax on hotel rooms, a sales tax on food and drinks in local restaurants, a sales tax on car rentals, and a hotel room tax in Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee. If you have ever dined or stayed in Milwaukee, you have helped fund the WCD.

 

Milwaukee has always struggled to consistently attract convention business, but with this new expansion of the Wisconsin Center, the WCD is hoping to change that dynamic. The expansion will expand the Wisconsin Center to 300,000 square feet of contiguous space. It will also add 24 additional meeting rooms and at least 400 indoor parking spaces. Finally, the WCD will add six loading docks, an executive kitchen, and a ballroom that will seat at least 2,000 people for dinner.

 

Unfortunately for the WCD, there is very little to support the supposition that the reason that Milwaukee has not been able to attract a substantial number of conventions is because the convention center is too small. The convention center has been expended over the years and the results remain the same. The reason that Milwaukee does not attract many conventions is because it’s Milwaukee.

 

Downtown Milwaukee is lovely and boasts a handful of fun attractions, but there just isn’t enough there to compete with so many other cities contending for convention business. When you couple the meager attractions with runaway crime, an inhospitable city government, and the long, brutal winters, the WCD has always been overly optimistic about the prospects of turning Milwaukee into a destination city for conventions. Furthermore, nobody is really sure if the pandemic- collapsed convention business will ever fully bounce back. Businesses have found other ways to market their wares, and some may never return to their previous convention spending.

 

The WCD has never been shy about spending taxpayer money on fanciful projects despite the slim prospects for success. After all, it’s not their money. For this expansion, the WCD borrowed $420 million.

 

They will pay back those bonds with the venue and tax revenues that they collect. But the state of Wisconsin has guaranteed $300 million of those bonds with state taxpayer money. If the whole thing is a failure, state taxpayers will shoulder the majority of the expense.

 

It is also worth remembering that the WCD’s finances have been in shambles for years. For the last six years, the WCD has run an operating loss every year. In 2014, they ran an operating loss of $16.5 million. In 2015, they lost $17.9 million. 2016; lost $15.1 million. 2017; lost $20.5 million. 2018; lost $24.1 million. 2019; lost $30.2 million. 2020 – the pandemic year; lost $35.7 million. Given the success of the Milwaukee Bucks winning the championship in 2021, the WCD might have eked out a profit, but probably not. The WCD was on the verge of defaulting on its loans last year until the pandemic caused the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates to near zero and the WCD refinanced its loans.

 

Given WCD’s previous financial record, it is a wonder that they could borrow even more on top of what they have already borrowed. But when the payback of the loans are supported by local tax revenue and Wisconsin state government has guaranteed the lion’s share of the loans, the WCD can continue to borrow and spend with abandon.

Wisconsin Center District breaks ground on money pit

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a taste:

Milwaukee has always struggled to consistently attract convention business, but with this new expansion of the Wisconsin Center, the WCD is hoping to change that dynamic. The expansion will expand the Wisconsin Center to 300,000 square feet of contiguous space. It will also add 24 additional meeting rooms and at least 400 indoor parking spaces. Finally, the WCD will add six loading docks, an executive kitchen, and a ballroom that will seat at least 2,000 people for dinner.

 

Unfortunately for the WCD, there is very little to support the supposition that the reason that Milwaukee has not been able to attract a substantial number of conventions is because the convention center is too small. The convention center has been expended over the years and the results remain the same. The reason that Milwaukee does not attract many conventions is because it’s Milwaukee.

 

Downtown Milwaukee is lovely and boasts a handful of fun attractions, but there just isn’t enough there to compete with so many other cities contending for convention business. When you couple the meager attractions with runaway crime, an inhospitable city government, and the long, brutal winters, the WCD has always been overly optimistic about the prospects of turning Milwaukee into a destination city for conventions. Furthermore, nobody is really sure if the pandemic- collapsed convention business will ever fully bounce back. Businesses have found other ways to market their wares, and some may never return to their previous convention spending.

Massive Property Tax Increase in Milwaukee

And they voted for it.

Across Milwaukee’s 15 aldermanic districts, the average assessment increased 9.14% from 2019, according to the Assessor’s Office.

 

Milwaukee residents also voted overwhelmingly in April in support of additional spending by Milwaukee Public Schools, and taxpayers are seeing the bill for the first time.

 

The school district can now exceed its state-imposed revenue limits by $87 million a year beginning in the 2023-24 school year, but it is ramping up to that sum by starting with $57 million in the 2020-21 school year.

 

The extra spending approved in the April referendum meant the school portion of city residents’ property tax bills increased by $1.60, from $9.58 to $11.18, for each $1,000 of home value — or about $240 a year on a home assessed at the median sale price of around $150,000.

City Leaders Admit Failure and Ask for State Help

While tragic, this is a local problem and a failure of local leadership. Extracting tax dollars from people in the rest of the state and throwing it at Milwaukee won’t solve the problem. Doing so will reward the failed leadership.

The Milwaukee Common Council sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers, asking him to send any resources that could help Milwaukee police curb reckless driving.

The letter was sent the day after three children were struck while crossing the street at 22nd and Center streets.

A 6-year-old girl died, and a 10-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl are in critical condition. The driver fled the scene.

In the letter to Evers, Milwaukee aldermen said police and the Wisconsin State Patrol have done what they can in recent months for traffic enforcement, “but until those driving in Milwaukee are compelled to obey laws we seem now to take for granted, we fear more will be injured and worse.”

Summerfest Runs up Security Bill

It sounds like the taxpayers are getting the raw end of a bad deal.

MILWAUKEE — Summerfest 2019 ended on a sour note for taxpayers, as security costs for the Big Gig exceeded the budget by more than $500,000. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said this wasn’t the first year this has happened; it was actually the fourth year in a row. City leaders said it’s time for a change.

On Thursday morning, Aug. 8, Milwaukee police briefed landlords of Maier Festival Park on just how much the department expected the final total to be: $800,000.

[…]

Leaders said in 2009, Summerfest officials agreed to compensate the city for police and fire services when the festival extended its lease through 2030. The negotiated payment this year was $134,00 — only a small fraction of projected costs.

Or are they? It sounds kind of like the costs are being inflated:

Barrett said the cost increase was due to a variety of factors, but not necessarily because more officers were being used to patrol the grounds.

“The costs include the overtime, the fixed costs that they have, and the pension costs that are embedded in this,” Barrett said.

In other words, “the budget is tight, so lets throw as many “costs” into the Summerfest gig so that we can charge them for it.” If the Milwaukee Police aren’t providing any more officers to patrol for Summerfest, then how did costs balloon from $134k to $800k in four years?

Water Before Trollies

When they have a point, they have a point.

MILWAUKEE — The Black Panthers and Freshwater for Life Action Coalition joined forces to demand lead laterals be removed from homes in Milwaukee. The activists stormed into City Hall with a jug of water on Tuesday, May 7 for the first of what they promised would be many protests in front of a much larger audience.

“I brought a gallon of water here for you,” said Robert Miranda, Freshwater for Life Action Coalition spokesman. “Milwaukee unfiltered fresh H2O.”

The group interrupted a Milwaukee Common Council meeting to ask city leaders to take a sip.

“Fresh and clean out of the tap that has a lead lateral. We’d like you to come forward and have a drink of this water if you don’t mind,” said Miranda.

The group demanded all lead laterals be quickly removed from homes in the city. They believe those lead laterals are responsible for elevated lead levels in children.

“You’ve got billions of dollars in construction on the upper east side and downtown Milwaukee, but what do you have in the black and brown communities? You have crumbs, and we’re going to sit here and tolerate that?! No. We are not going to tolerate that any longer,” said King Rick, Black Panthers.

Barrett’s Bad Priorities

Barrett has moved from a benign caretaker mayor of Milwaukee to one that is precipitating the city’s decline.

MILWAUKEE — Significant cuts to the police and fire departments. That’s what the city of Milwaukee faces as Mayor Tom Barrett prepares to unveil his 2018 budget Tuesday, September 26th. The mayor’s office said the original budget proposal had more drastic cuts to public safety, and they said the mayor did his best–still this isn’t popular with many people.

The mayor’s budget proposal to include cutting 33 police officer positions and 75 firefighter slots is not popular with many.

[…]

“I don’t want to have fewer police officers next year. But in order for us to avoid that, we’re going to have to have a sales tax,” Mayor Tom Barrett said.

The property tax levy is also slated to go up by 3.7 percent. The city is faced with lead issues in the water, replacing leaking pipes and laterals connected to water mains. Police and fire pension payments are skyrocketing as more retirements loom.

So there’s no money for police, fire fighters, fixing the city’s lead pipes, etc., but there is plenty of money for a downtown trolley, the mayor’s staff, employee benefits, etc. Milwaukee has plenty of money. The problem is that the city’s leadership has idiotic priorities.

Perceptions of Milwaukee

I started watching an Amazon series called “Patriot.” It’s a quirky show about an undercover dude who is trying to keep Iran from getting a nuke. In order to get overseas with an intact cover, he poses as a normal employee of an industrial piping firm based in Milwaukee.

One can just imagine the writers talking about this. “He should have a job that sounds super boring and technical… that’s a gold mine of material.” “Hmmm… how about industrial piping?” “YES!” “Where should the company be based? It needs to be somewhere equally boring and easy to create weird characters in it… something rust belt.” “Cleveland?” “No, they have a good basketball team and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” “Milwaukee?” “YES! PERFECT!”

Anyway, in episode 2, one of those goofy local characters is talking to the main character, who is not from Milwaukee. He poses the question:

milwaukee

The answer was, “It’s an ice box… sun hardly shines; our economy is factory-based, dwindling since the ’60s; endemic violent crime in Milwaukee.”

That, my friends, is how the world still sees Milwaukee. And it is still largely true.

That is why we must work extra hard to attract businesses and people. Milwaukee doesn’t have the luxury of hot sandy beaches, glorious mountains, a temperate climate, or a warm water port. Nor does it have low taxes, friendly regulations, or a welcoming business climate. While we can’t change the physical or historical attributes of Milwaukee or our state, we can change the rest of it… if we want to. If not, well, I guess people will continue to think about Milwaukee like this for the foreseeable future.

 

Paying for Milwaukee

Simply put, all of Wisconsin is paying for Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s 66-plus percentage return also exceeds most other cities in the state, which average even less, 51.03%. The statewide average for all municipalities, including towns and villages, is just 55.69%.

The DOR report lists only a handful of the state’s 190 or so cities as getting back more than 90% of what they pay out to the state. Milwaukee ranks in the top third among the state’s cities in the DOR report.

The real point Barrett was trying to make is that Milwaukee is an economic engine experiencing an economic turnaround that’s benefiting southeastern Wisconsin, the state and the region and that it deserves the support it receives and is necessary to a healthy Wisconsin economy and culture.

But many of the city’s problems continue to siphon millions of dollars from the rest of the state while for decades failing to produce desired results. An op-ed from Barrett and Hamilton laying out a plan to solve those problems would be worth reading.

Barrett Calls for More Gun Laws in Response to Milwaukee Violence

I’m having a hard time not concluding that Mayor Barrett is just a raving mad on this issue.

The Democratic mayor called for policy action, in the form of more state resources to combat gun crime in Milwaukee. “I don’t want to lock up more people who are carrying a nickel bag of marijuana, but I do want to lock up more people who get involved in gunfights in parks, on streets, outside taverns,” the mayor said.

I’m sorry, but it is now legal for people to get in gunfights in parks, streets, and outside taverns (apparently gunfights inside taverns are taboo)? Last time I checked, that was already illegal. How would more gun laws help?

Barrett is also railing against concealed carry, but I haven’t seen it reported that a single one of the Milwaukee murders was committed by someone legally carrying a gun and illegally using it. One of the most egregious, the murder of a driver and teen, was allegedly committed by a felon who was on parole. He was breaking several laws by possessing a gun.

There might be a few tweaks to our gun laws that make sense, but they are not going to fix the violence in Milwaukee. The mayor of that city, Tom Barrett, is failing in his job to protect the citizens of his city and he is desperately seeking to deflect blame elsewhere.

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