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MMAC Panel Eyes Sales Tax Referendum For Milwaukee Cultural Institutions

Milwaukee County Parks, Facebook

In 2008, Milwaukee County voters approved the idea of boosting the local sales tax to pay for parks, transit and emergency medical services. The referendum went nowhere.

It was only advisory; in order to raise the sales tax, state leaders must agree.

Now, a major business group has mentioned the idea of a higher local sales tax; this time, to pay for parks and cultural institutions in the Milwaukee area. A task force could soon formally recommend the idea.

Credit S Bence
Milwaukee Public Museum

  About a year ago, the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce created a 48-member task force. It’s job has been to examine ways of raising money to fix aging cultural institutions. Those include the Milwaukee County Zoo and Public Museum. MMAC President Tim Sheehy says cultural assets here are at risk of falling into disrepair.

“We need to make a decision. If we don’t make a decision, we will lose the world class culture and arts institutions that we have, and their ability to help Milwaukee project itself as a great place to live, work, play and learn,” Sheehy says.

Sheehy insists he’s not advocating for a higher sales tax; but asking voters what they think might be valuable. He says a referendum could ask Milwaukee County residents if they support a half percent sales tax increase, with the money funding improvements to the parks and other cultural institutions. Other nearby counties could conduct their own votes.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick wonders what would change this time around.  “It’s interesting that they are ignoring the fact that the public has already spoken on this issue back in 2008," Broderick says.

Broderick was instrumental in getting the sales tax referendum on the ballot in 2008 for parks and transportation. Voters approved it; the state ignored the results.  The supervisor points out that the MMAC was not on board with the idea.

“Back then, they actively opposed the authority being granted by the state for us to grant a half-cent sales tax for transportation and parks, and now of course, they’re offering their own proposal,” Broderick says.

Broderick thinks the current referendum idea is a smokescreen. He believes MMAC is actually floating the possibility of a higher sales tax to help pay for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

The team’s owners want to select a site by the end of the year. The MMAC’s task force will convene Tuesday night for one of its final meetings.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.