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Nick Wass 

FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2018, file photo, Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith gestures in the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore. The Green Bay Packers agreed to $183 million worth of contracts Tuesday, March 12, 2019, with edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, linebacker Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and offensive lineman Billy Turner. The signings should improve a defense that ranked 18th in the NFL in 2018 and add some more protection for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

Miller Park Tax
Miller Park tax projected to end in March 2020

MILWAUKEE— Miller Park tax district officials are hedging that the 0.1 percent sales tax won’t go into extra innings and expect to end the controversial revenue source in March 2020.

Every year for more than two decades, the board members of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District have been receiving updates on where the district is in the process of retiring the tax. On Tuesday, the district board met to map out what is hoped to be the final year of the tax, which funded construction of Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. The stadium opened in 2001.

David Anderson, director of PFM Financial Advisors, said assuming no dramatic decline in sales tax receipts, the district will have accumulated sufficient funds in late 2019 or early 2020 to begin the sales tax retirement process.

“This is finally the time to be saying ‘Yes, it’s closing down,’" Anderson said. “As we’ve gotten closer and closer (to the end), the number of variables have just been reduced or eliminated. Right now the only variable that could impact anything is the collection of sales tax.”

Don Smiley, chairman of the district board, said that after March 2020 the district will have placed enough funds in escrow accounts to meet its future contractual obligations.

“Baring severe unforeseen circumstances, all indications are that the district will be in a position to certify the end the 0.1 percent Miller Park sales tax at its meeting of March of 2020,” said Smiley, a Racine native who also is president and chief executive officer of Summerfest and a former president of the Florida Marlins, a Brewers rival in the National League.

Mike Duckett, executive director of the district, said taxpayers “can finally see the end of the tunnel.”

“It feels awesome,” Duckett said. “(The tax) is a big lightning-rod issue and it’s a very emotional issue. And I think everybody can, and should, take pleasure in the fact that we’re this close to an end and looks fairly certain.”

Racine County and four other southeast Wisconsin counties — Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — have been contributing to the Miller Park tax since 1996.

The district has $38.7 million in debt payments that need to be put in a “defeasance” process, a complex legal proceeding that will officially retire the debt.

If the district receives sufficient sales tax receipts in December 2019, which the district will actually receive in January, then it can begin the process to retire the tax.

If the December sales tax distribution is not enough to cover the district’s $38.7 million debt, then the tax will be carried over into January 2020.

Either way, it’s expected that the 0.1 percent sales tax will be put to bed by March 2020.

But even if the district claims it has collected enough money to last until 2040, it will be up to Peter Barca, secretary of the state Department of Revenue, to officially “turn off” the sales tax.

Until the Department of Revenue officially ends the tax, it’s possible the 0.1 percent tax could remain be in place. If that is the case, it will be up to the Department of Revenue to decide what to do with the money. It’s possible it could go back to the affected counties.

In 2018, Racine County contributed $2.9 million to the district, or about 9 percent of the more than $31 million collected in total.

When broken down even further, the district estimates that residents each paid on average $12 last year toward the Miller Park tax.

Miller Park upgrades

At the meetings on Tuesday, the district’s operations and finance committees approved three projects through its segregated reserve fund — a new LED ribbon board, repairing the “out-of-town” score board, and repairs to one of six flat roof segments.

The out-of-town scoreboard is in left field at ground level, and displays scores from around Major League Baseball.

In 2006, an LED ribbon board was installed around the ballpark for $3.1 million at the time. The team was forced to install the board under a “75 percent” rule which, in essence, forces teams to make upgrades at their ballpark if 75 percent of other ballparks have made the upgrade.

Duckett said the 75 percent rule was written in the district’s memorandum of understanding with the state, Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee and the Brewers.

Now, as the LED ribbon board heads into its 14th season, district officials are concerned about its condition. If the board fails during this Brewers season, it cannot be replaced until after the season is over.

Because of infrastructure currently in place, the district will only be spending $2.1 million to replace the board. The materials will be put together during this season and replacement is to take place after the 2019 season.

Miller Park also has six flat roof segments that have been leaking. Buckets have been placed to collect water leaking through those roofs. The segment above the ballpark offices will cost about $140,000 to replace. The cost to replace the other segments ranges from $100,000 to $120,000.

The money collected from the sales tax goes toward payment of premium property taxes, maintenance and upgrades to the stadium. When the sales tax is over, the only revenue the district will receive will come from the Brewers, who pay $1.2 million in rent each year.

Through the existence of the tax, the district has been preparing for its retirement by saving money to last until about 2040. That means any large upgrades — such as the center-field scoreboard which is expected to be replaced in about 2027 — will be paid for out of an escrow account.

The district anticipates having to replace the soon-to-be new LED ribbon board again in about 2033.

The district board is scheduled to meet again in June.

Highway KR expansion
KR resolution sent back to committees; supervisors never received comments

YORKVILLE — Before public comment even began Tuesday evening, Racine County Board Chairman Russell Clark referred back to committees a resolution on land acquisition for the controversial widening of a 2.8-mile stretch of Highway KR.

The resolution will go back to the County Board’s Public Works, Parks and Facilities Committee and the Executive Committee for further review. The dates for those meetings are as yet undecided.

The committee referral comes two weeks after the Public Works Committee unanimously — and without fanfare — recommended the resolution for approval.

If passed, the resolution would have authorized measures as drastic as eminent domain to take land from residents on the Racine County side of Highway KR to facilitate widening it from a two-lane rural road to a four-lane urban road with a median, wider shoulders and a walking path, from 400 feet east of Highway H to just east of Taylor Avenue (Old Green Bay Road on the Kenosha County side).

A total of 68.9 acres of agricultural and residential land would need to be taken for the project, with most of it coming from the Racine County side of the highway. The $59 million project is a joint effort between the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Racine and Kenosha counties; the counties are responsible for land acquisition.

The anticlimactic beginning to the meeting did not stop 14 concerned citizens and one state representative from voicing their opinions on the project. Making appearances to speak in opposition of the project were landowners from both Mount Pleasant and Somers who would be affected, local activists and state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee. It did not appear that any WisDOT representatives were present at the meeting at the county’s Ives Grove Office Complex, 14200 Washington Ave.

Most speakers urged the board to hold off on any decisions, with many of them slamming the project as catering more to Foxconn Technology Group than to Mount Pleasant and Somers residents.

“You represent the citizens — not the DOT, not Foxconn, not contractors,” Somers resident Carol Rannow told County Board supervisors.

Public comments not received

During a Feb. 28 WisDOT-hosted public information meeting at the Somers Village Hall, about 170 area residents came out to see the latest plans for the project, which is the second phase of a widening of Highway KR from Interstate 94 all the way to Highway 32 to allow quicker access to Downtown Racine and Kenosha from the Interstate.

At that public meeting, residents were able to provide written and verbal testimony to go into the public record. But three county supervisors said they never received any of the public comments submitted to the DOT.

“We don’t have the trust of the people, obviously,” said Supervisor Fabi Maldonado, of Racine, a member of the Public Works Committee. “Look what happened today, right? Everybody’s surprised. They were asking us if we’d received their comments. We have not received their comments.”

Supervisors Monte Osterman and Nick Demske, who both represent parts of the City of Racine, also confirmed they had not received anything from WisDOT, though Osterman said he had received emails from individual residents.

Emails from Steve Hoff, WisDOT’s southeast region project manager, sent to two residents and reviewed by The Journal Times, stated that residents’ concerns would be shared with Racine and Kenosha counties.

It was unclear Tuesday night if Racine County staff received the feedback and did not pass it on to supervisors, but Osterman said that was unlikely. Hoff could not be reached for comment Tuesday night following the meeting to see if WisDOT had provided any feedback to either county.

“There was a problem somewhere along the line, whether it was a miscommunication or a suppression of information, I don’t know,” Demske said. “But certainly, the public understood something would happen, and then something else happened, and that’s a problem.”

“There was a problem somewhere along the line, whether it was a miscommunication or a suppression of information, I don’t know. But certainly, the public understood something would happen, and then something else happened, and that’s a problem.” Nick Demske, Racine County Board supervisor



No SAFER grant for Caledonia Fire Department

CALEDONIA — The Village Board on Tuesday denied a request from the Caledonia Fire Department to apply for a grant that potentially could have helped fund the addition of six firefighters to its staff.

Instead of authorizing the department’s application for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — or SAFER — grant, the village trustees agreed to create an ad hoc committee to look into various options for financing and staffing at the department. The committee would plan to make recommendations for the 2020 village budgeting process.

The department has 39 firefighters, and department leaders would like to eventually add 18 more. The department never has the 15 firefighters on duty to respond to a structure fire, per National Fire Protection Association standards, and must rely on neighboring departments for help in those instances.

Fire Chief Richard Roeder and Battalion Chief Jeff Henningfeld requested approval to apply for the grant during a March 4 meeting, but were asked to come back on Tuesday with more information on the cost of the new hires to the village.

The grant, if awarded, would have funded 70 percent of the wages/benefits for new hires in the first two years, and then 35 percent in the third year. The village would have to fund all costs after that.

Henningfeld told the board on Tuesday that the costs to the village for the hires would be $152,858 in the first year, $157,398 in the second year, $400,000 in the third year and more than $600,000 per year after that.

Village Trustee Fran Martin said that if the board had voted to approve the grant application on Tuesday, it was essentially approving a big budget increase four years out.

“To me, that’s what we’re voting on,” Martin said. “We’re committing, I think, to $600,000 a year four years from now.”

She did not think the board had sufficient information or time to commit to that, as the SAFER application is due March 22.

Trustee Kevin Wanggaard said that although he wasn’t advocating for it, the village could decide to not keep the additional firefighters on staff after the third year if it couldn’t find the money to pay them. Hiring employees and then firing them when the grant money runs out is a bad way to do business, answered Trustee Dave Prott.

Trustee Lee Wishau suggested the board do some long-term planning and look at all its options before making any decisions. He also asked why staffing at the Fire Department was not discussed at budget time.

“At budget time I did request more personnel, and at budget time you guys said ‘it’s not feasible.’ ” Roeder said.

The chief said that at that time the board told him to come back and ask for more personnel by using the SAFER grant.

After the meeting, Roeder declined to comment on the board’s decision to deny the grant application request.

Other staffing, funding options

One option the village could consider for increased funding for both the Caledonia fire and police departments is going to referendum and ask the citizens for more money, Roeder said.

“That provides the citizens of the village to speak up and say, ‘Yes, we’ll fund this,’ ” he said.

Another option for additional revenue is an increase in ambulance fees. Henningfield suggested increasing fees by about 20 percent. Current fees were set in 2014, and the department’s own billing company said it is currently undercharging for its services compared to other departments. The increase would net the village an additional $47,000 in revenue per year.

Trustee Jay Benkowski said the department should increase the fees even more than 20 percent.

Henningfield presented some staffing options other than creating new full-time positions, including paying part-time, on-call firefighters who respond after radio page. The department eliminated use of paid-on-call firefighters in 1999 as the system wasn’t working well in what was then the Town of Caledonia. Many other departments have had trouble with type of system, Roeder said.

Henningfield said these firefighters often don’t stay with the department very long, resulting in a revolving door of firefighters getting trained, then leaving for career positions.

Another option was paid-on-premise firefighters, who would work regular shifts at the station, and would be paid a lower rate until they went out on a call. The department would have to hire 15 of these part-timers to ensure none got more than 1,200 hours per year, which would allow them to receive benefits.

Roeder and Henningfield both recommended against these options.