RACINE — Following through on a key campaign promise, newly elected Mayor Cory Mason submitted paperwork Friday morning to veto the Downtown event center funding included in the city’s 10-year capital improvement plan and 2018 operating budget.
The City Council, which just earlier this month approved budgets that maintained earmarks for the possible construction of the arena, could entertain a motion to override the mayor’s veto when it meets on Tuesday. That would require the backing of two-thirds of the aldermen present for the meeting — 10 votes if all 15 aldermen show up.
The event center/arena project was originally proposed by former Mayor John Dickert and supported by Dennis Wiser, the City Council president who served as interim mayor after Dickert’s resignation in the summer.
“I said that I would veto this project if it came to my desk. I am keeping my promise and vetoing that proposal today,” Mason said Friday, speaking to local media outlets. “As a mayor who wants to set a good tone with the voters who just elected me less than a month ago, it is really important that that I follow through and keep my word.”
Asked if he felt he had the votes to prevent an override, Mason said he has been speaking with aldermen in recent days. Although there are aldermen who remain firmly in favor of or opposed to the project, there are others who are on the fence, he said.
Wiser said on Friday that he would not be surprised if an override was put forth Tuesday. He said he would make that motion if no other aldermen did.
“The project is about 230 new jobs, 400 construction jobs, and 50,000 new visitors,” Wiser said, pointing to a project study. “I would hate to see it just stop dead in its tracks. If there are issues why it shouldn’t go forward, we need to look at those issues, and not just say ‘no.’ ”
Financing a chief concern
Mason’s veto calls for striking $2.5 million in intergovernmental revenue sharing (I.G.) funds from the operating budget, as well about $55 million in earmarks for the event center in the capital improvement plan. That includes $39.5 million in bonding and another $12.8 million dollars in I.G. funds to finance that debt.
In his written explanation for the veto, Mason highlights what he sees as the project’s lack of financial stability. That includes concerns that the proposed financing would draw too widely from not just the tax increment financing district proposed for the project, but also from taxing districts designed to spur development in other areas like West Racine.
Mason also raises concerns about the project’s heavy reliance on intergovernmental revenue sharing funds the city gets from outlying municipalities to help spark development within its borders.
After talking with opponents and proponents of the project, Mason said he is even more convinced the arena project doesn’t make financial sense, even with the construction of a sprawling Foxconn manufacturing plant in Mount Pleasant.
“Look, I am somebody who believes in economic development. The city needs new net growth construction if we are going to grow and succeed. I believe in all of those things,” Mason said.
“But the financing behind this is so tenuous and so variable, I do not believe we can afford to do it. And I think moving forward with it would be reckless and put other potential development projects at risk.”
As for Mason’s funding concerns, Wiser said the project “fits comfortably” into the capital improvement plan. He also pointed to what he called “new revenue streams” to be created by the arrival of Foxconn that he said “could dramatically reduce the portion paid by the taxpayers.”
At this point, Mason said he is really hoping the city can close the event center chapter quickly.
“The politics of it all aside, the public antipathy of it all aside, on the merits, it is hard for me to see how this actually makes viable financial sense,” Mason said.
If aldermen succeed in overriding Mason’s veto, he and other opponents of the arena on the City Council would have another chance to oppose the project when they are asked to consider phase two: a proposal to spend between $2.5 and $3.2 million on the design process.
Nevertheless, Wiser said he thinks his camp probably has the votes to survive Mason’s initial veto challenge.
Everyone will find out for sure on Tuesday, he said.