Depending on who you ask, building a new, publicly financed basketball stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks is either a horrendous example of corporate welfare and official corruption, or a chance to reinvigorate an economically depressed city.
With the fate of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan up in the air — hit by criticism from progressives and conservatives alike — the county held its first public meeting Tuesday night to discuss the proposal to use tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to keep the team in the city.
The large crowd took issue with many aspects of the deal, which would sell public land valued at nearly $9 million for $1 dollar to the team’s billionaire owners.
Earlier this month, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a key architect of the deal, promised the plan to build a brand new stadium close to the 27-year-old existing venue would “create jobs, generate millions of dollars in economic activity and property value, and provide a great return on investment for taxpayers.”
Local Milwaukee blogs have raised questions about whether it would also be a great return on investment for Abele personally, given that he recently purchased a $2 million condo directly next to the site of the proposed arena and the restaurants and stores slated to surround it.
“The appreciation for that condo will go sky-high,” Milwaukee economics professor Michael Rosen told ThinkProgress. “I’m not saying that’s why he bought it, but the fact is that will appreciate like crazy if the stadium gets built. He has an interest in this, even though his job as public official is to look out for this community.”
Abele’s office did not respond to an interview request from ThinkProgress.
Several local officials are also speaking out against the county’s promise to collect $4 million per year in unpaid debts from residents, plus a penalty fee of 15 percent, to contribute to the stadium. For example, a woman who owed $1,000 for an old traffic ticket would be charged $1,150.
Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan, Jr. called the proposal to go after unpaid ambulance rides, delinquent property taxes and court fees “crony capitalism.”
“This plan shifts the cost of the new arena from the state and the Milwaukee Bucks’ new wealthy owners to the poorest in our community,” he said. “I will not foreclose on someone’s home or shake down a senior for unpaid medical bills in order to build an arena for millionaires and billionaires.”
Whether or not it’s morally right to collect these debts to pay for the stadium, some county officials say it may not be possible, because most of the residents that owe that money are indigent.
County comptroller estimated in an official report that the county could only collect about 2 percent of the money they’re promising — in part because much of the unpaid court fees would go to restitution for victims of crimes if they ever got collected.
“This is phony money. This is hocus-pocus,” Rosen told ThinkProgress. “They won’t be able to collect it, and if they do, it’s going to come from our poorest citizens, and that’s outrageous.”
The scramble to find a source of revenue for the stadium is exacerbated by Governor Scott Walker’s pledge not to create any new taxes to pay for the project. But many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain critical of the plan, and say it’s inappropriate to tuck it into the must-pass state budget. A growing bloc of lawmakers are demanding a separate vote.