By Dennis Shook, for   Published Jun 09, 2006 at 5:06 AM
Proposals for a regional sales tax boost are getting a thumbs down from suburban leaders.
Among them is Waukesha County Executive Daniel Vrakas, who says Milwaukee's best answer to its  fiscal problems is not to lobby taxpayers to raise the sales tax but to lobby Madison for diverting some of that revenue.

Vrakas made his remarks to WisPolitics in reaction to a recently discussed concept to raise the sales tax in southeastern Wisconsin's seven counties to support area parks and cultural attractions. The counties included would be Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Walworth.

Vrakas, a Republican state legislator from Hartland before taking the reins of county government last fall, said that is a "non-starter." Bill McReynolds, the Racine County executive who's leaving to run for the state Senate, told a newspaper the same thing  And Walworth County Administrator David Bretl has said he doesn't think the idea would sell in his county either.

Instead, Vrakas is pushing for an effort by the legislators in the seven-county area to allow the region to siphon off some of the growth in state sales tax revenues that now goes completely and directly to state government. That would be a more reasonable source of revenue that Milwaukee County could use to bail itself out of its increasing fiscal problems, he said. "Waukesha County now gets back about 30 cents on the dollar from (sales tax revenue)  growth," Vrakas said. "I would like us to tell the state that we should be allowed to capture some of the growth in our sales tax as we make efforts to expand the region. As the sales tax grows because of economic  development, we should be allowed to keep some of that. And I think it makes a lot of sense to try to build political support for that idea. It's not  raising taxes."

Vrakas said that concept was discussed at a May meeting of the "Milwaukee Seven" group of regional leaders that has been formed to market the region as one unified political and economic entity. The leaders come from the same seven counties mentioned in the regional sales tax idea.
The Waukesha County exec also recommended that Milwaukee County segregate some of its main problem areas from its overall budget and force them into self-sufficiency, as Waukesha County has done. "In Waukesha County, we have sold off the county nursing home, the museum, and the parks, golf courses, and ice rinks are all operating independent of tax dollars," he said. "We have an airport that is down to taking about $200,000 a year in tax dollars and we have spun off the Expo Center. So we're in a different situation than Milwaukee County."

The seven-county "cultural" tax to support Milwaukee tourist destinations has been offered up as an idea by Jill Pelisek, chair of a Greater Milwaukee Committee study group on the future of Milwaukee County parks, and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy. But they have stopped short of a total endorsement of such a plan. Among the potential beneficiaries from such a tax would be  the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the county's parks.

Discussion has centered on replicating the  0.1 percent retail sales tax in place in metropolitan Denver that helps fund a botanical garden, a zoo, and two area museums. But those funds are distributed throughout the region and not used only to help underwrite the city's destinations.

The idea of even a Milwaukee County-only sales tax increase targeted only for parks and cultural attractions might not be politically feasible, Vrakas said. Despite a recent vote by the Milwaukee County Board to place an advisory tax referendum on the September ballot, the effort lacks the support of both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. Walker has vowed to veto the referendum, and it appears unlikely the board would be able to override his veto.

Vrakas suggested Milwaukee County consider charging a fee for park usage, as is done in Waukesha County.

But Vrakas also said Milwaukee needs to approach the state Legislature to address much larger issues, like changes in the state's mediation-arbitration law, if it expects to solve financial problems such as funding parks. Walker said this week that Milwaukee County is paying out nearly $50 million  annually in pensions.