The Streetcar, TIFs, and MPS

Ok, this is a public concession. You should at least keep reading to see how badly I bungle it.

Short version: Jay Bullock is right; I’m wrong. He’ll gloat for a few seconds. I’ll continue my story and reprimand him anyway.

Isn’t political commenting fun?

Longer version:

Jay Bullock wrote a piece for – Building the Streetcar Doesn’t Hurt MPS. Wrong! Well, that’s what I thought anyway. And although I’ll argue otherwise in a bit, his general premise is that because of the way Wisconsin funds schools, the same money per pupil will flow to MPS no matter the tax base in that district.

Again, he’s right. I’m wrong. The funding per student will continue no matter the taxing base thanks to Wisconsin’s complicated school funding formula. (Like I said on Twitter last night, only click that link if you want to cry yourself to sleep.)

Integrating the concept of the school funding formula makes me wonder why school districts are even at the table for a TIF approval, but I suppose if I look up the timeline, I will find that the TIF law proceeds the school funding law.

Now, where I take umbrage with Bullock’s approach, is that in a tweet to me he says those proffering the statement about harming the school district are “flat out lying.” Hey, even PolitiFact was gracious enough to give a Mostly False rating instead of Pants on Fire. Perhaps, if Bullock wants to be better loved, he could have couched his reply as “they are failing to consider the school funding formula.” Being called a liar makes me cranky.

Besides, even PolitiFact concedes that the incremental tax base increase is being manipulated away from MPS in any new TIF plan to fund the streetcar. What I think I’m beginning to understand is that when one includes the school funding formula, that shifts the burden to the whole of Wisconsin. After all, the money comes from somewhere.

Also, I still think the “doesn’t hurt MPS” is a bit general. A stagnate tax base, trapped into 20 years of new TIF districts, is going to discourage investment in individual housing as those tax rates will stay high to compensate for the removed incremental gain. Taxes are high for the MPS district. They won’t be going down anytime soon.

A $200,000 house for sale in Brookfield in the coveted Elmbrook school district is listed as having taxes of $3,467. A house in Milwaukee and MPS for the same price uses $7,256. (For 2013. – 15320 Carpenter Rd. and 6375 N. 118th St.) If you had $200,000 to spend on a house, and you also had children who needed to attend school, where do you think they should go? Failing MPS or excelling Elmbrook? Now consider that same house in Milwaukee pays double the property taxes of the one in Brookfield. Gosh, that was easy.

The key in the TIF legislation is the “but for” language. Would the area develop without intervention? Clearly that answer is yes. Would these proposed developments take place without taxpayer subsidy to the developer? The developers say no.

It’s all part of the the “development saves you money” argument. It’s a poor argument, especially when the incremental increase in tax base is consumed for 20 years. And, don’t forget to consider that the one area is already in a TIF district and about to be restricted again. The city is saying it’s better to subsidize the the return on investment for certain developers rather than let the area develop on its own.

Also, I’m still very disappointed the city won’t integrate other planning in the streetcar proposal. Piecemeal is going to be a mess. Milwaukee already has an obsolete performance arena, an obsolete convention center, and miserable transportation from the airport to downtown. The leadership may want success, but I don’t think they are doing very much to plan for it because they refuse to acknowledge the bigger picture.

As for me, I won’t renew my subscription to the symphony for several years. I’m not into construction heartache. I don’t go downtown much other than that. Brookfield has a great brewery within walking distance from my home. We enjoy a variety of very good restaurants. And if I’m going to make the drive, I’ll end up in Bay View. It’s a very happy place with Sugar Maple and Honeypie Cafe and Cafe Lulu’s. (Oh shoot. I may have just made myself hungry.)


Politics is the art of picking winners and losers. It doesn’t matter that you don’t agree, you’ve elected leadership who thinks their hand-selected winners are more important than you, if you happen to be the loser.

In summary, funding per pupil won’t change with the streetcar, but it’s naive to think it won’t harm MPS, as any incremental increase in tax base will be withheld for 20 years. Does the city have 20 years to fix MPS?

So party on, you streetcar fans. Let’s touch base in a couple of decades and see how that all worked out for you.


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