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Politics & Government

Bucks Arena: Senate Nears Vote as County Debt Collection Proposal Hangs in the Balance

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Courtesy of the Milwaukee Bucks
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The state Senate could vote as soon as Wednesday on a financing package for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

It would include contributions from state and local government, in addition to the funding the Bucks’ current and former owners have committed.

Under the plan the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance held a hearing on last week, Milwaukee County’s share would come, in part, from $4 million a year in debt collections. The arena plan calls for the state Department of Revenue to assume the county’s role in debt collection.

The debt collection plan is controversial, and may not make it into the final package lawmakers consider.

Teig Whaley-Smith is with County Executive Chris Abele’s administration. It backs the proposal, saying it would be more efficient and effective than the county’s current debt collection practices.

“Currently, the county is very fractured. Each department is doing debt collection on its own, for the most part, among several different elected branches, and so the national best practice is to consolidate those efforts,” Whaley-Smith says.

Whaley-Smith says the state would go after people who are more than 90 days behind on payments and owe more than $50, unless they’ve arranged payment plans.

“It includes all debt owed to Milwaukee County. There are several debts that come to us. One is property tax. One is if you lease a parks facility and don’t pay for it. Another is if you have a traffic ticket that goes through circuit court and you don’t pay it,” Whaley-Smith says.

The state would take steps to recoup the money and has powers the county lacks, such the ability to garnish wages.

We asked Whaley-Smith if County Executive Abele worries that citizens will feel they’re being squeezed to pay for an arena -- especially if they don’t support it. He says those with delinquent accounts would only pay money they already owe the county. He adds, they would not incur new fees, under the new debt collection method.

“Government works when everybody contributes, and I think those of us that do pay our taxes on time expect other people to do it as well, to fund all of the things that we do,” Whaley-Smith says.

There is a potential downside to using debt collection as a means to pay for much of the county’s share of a new Bucks arena. The legislation before state lawmakers as of last week’s Joint Committee on Finance meeting says if collections fall short of $4 million a year, the state would dock the county’s shared revenue payments. Whaley-Smith calls that possibility unlikely.

“We do not expect that to happen. We leave tens of millions of dollars in property tax on the table every year. Eventually we do collect that, but sometimes it takes 10 years to collect that. With this additional tool there’s no question that we will meet and exceed that $4 million a year,” Whaley-Smith says.

And if the state does recover more than four-million dollars a year? Whaley-Smith says the rest would flow into the county’s coffers, to help pay for services such as parks and mental health.

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