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Innovation investment risk debated

Split budget and finance committee votes to advance plans

Feb. 13, 2013

The long process of passing a measure that would allow city funds to pay for private parking at Innovation Campus was nearly delayed Tuesday night near the end of a two-hour debate over the city's risk in investing in the park.

The matter at hand in Tuesday's Budget and Finance Committee meeting was considering a project plan amendment to Tax Incremental Financing District No. 6, which allows property tax increments from new building at the park to repay the city for the construction of roads and other infrastructure. The amendment would extend that financing to pay for parking structures, the first of which would likely be the 100-car, $2 million structure under the planned ABB building at the park.

A separate measure would have to be passed to apply the funding to the ABB project.

Investment payback

In a series of questions, Alderman Pete Donegan outlined the growth of the city funding involved in the park from some $12 million to as much as $35 million.

"There is no tax base addition here, there is no help to the Wauwatosa taxpayer for 27 years" in the estimates provided, he said.

"I don't know of any investment that has no payback for 27 years … this is high-risk stuff," he said, adding that the city needs to resist companies who seek tax breaks. "These are startling, startling numbers."

"Pete, you're brilliant!" Alderman Brian Ewerdt said. He called for the process to slow down and made a motion to hold the decision, which was seconded by Alderman Tim Hanson.

Ewerdt, calling the request for parking a taxpayer subsidy and even "corporate welfare," cited the example of GE in the Tosa Research Park. The city gave GE a $27 million parking structure, just under one-third of the cost of the $90 million building. The city was repaid $12 million, but the building had declined in assessment to $54 million, providing less property tax than it had.

Ewerdt said ABB's sales made the $2 million a miniscule expense for the company, and gesturing to the staff present, he asked his colleagues to "step out of this little circle of cheerleading and excitement and everything we've heard, and get creative, look at something different."

Accepting the amendment

Chairman Craig Wilson struggled to keep the discussion on point - whether or not to accept the amendment - and argued in favor it. He cited the city's good experience with TIFs in the past, and noted that the amendment itself was not approving funding for parking structure, just enabling a later consideration of it.

Alderwoman Jill Organ asked Development Director Paulette Enders if a vote to hold the measure for two weeks would have an effect on the project. Enders said it would interfere with ABB's tight schedule, and when Organ asked, "Any chance that not moving forward could kill the project?" Enders said "It could."

Alderman John Dubinski praised the administration for "finally doing something with this blighted piece of land," and while he felt bad about the cutting of the trees, said, "We really need to move forward on this."

The hold motion was whittled down from two weeks to one week, but still was defeated on a tie vote, with Dubinski, Wilson, Donegan and Alderman Joel Tilleson voting against the hold.

After another convoluted amendment failed, the project plan amendment allowing funding for parking was approved, with Aldermen Don Birschel and Tim Hanson voting no, and Ewerdt voting "present."

The measure needs approval by the Common Council, likely next week, and Enders said the next step would be consideration of a request from ABB, or its developer, Zilber Ltd., for the city to pay for a $2 million parking structure.

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