Debt dilemma: Bucks arena okayed state, but how will Milwaukee Co. pay for its portion?

MILWAUKEE -- In the Bucks arena bill approved earlier this week in Madison, Milwaukee County has to come up with $80 million. The county's original way of paying was taken out of the bill and the idea of collecting unpaid debt is still on the table -- the question is whether county officials will sign off on it.

Officials in Milwaukee County remain split over whether it's realistic to think the state can collect enough unpaid debt to make the county's annual arena payment.

"Whatever we collect in debt, if we're going to use it for the arena, we're now going to have to raise property taxes to fill the hole debt collection used to pay," said Milwaukee County Supervisor, Patricia Jursik.

Currently, Milwaukee County recovers between $10 and $16 million a year from its unpaid taxes and fees. In order to make its annual arena payment without creating a hole in the budget, the county would have to increase that amount by $4 million.

County Executive Chris Abele says state officials have assured him they can get the job done.

"We went through our outstanding debt, we showed them here's what we've got, what is your experience with this kind of debt? How much do you think you can increase? They think we can easily increase it by $4 million a year -- they think we can increase it by more," said Abele.

County Treasurer David Cullen would have to sign off on such an agreement -- he remains skeptical.

"The comptroller in his report, he's the independently-elected financial officer of the county and his report said the state's not going to be able to collect much more than we're already collecting," said Cullen.

Cullen says he's also uncomfortable with the state taking money out of peoples' paychecks and bank accounts based on who he says is often on the bad debt list.

"Generally, it's people who because of a loss of job, because of a medical condition, perhaps the death of a family member, like a spouse, they've gotten behind on their property taxes," said Cullen.

"We're just talking about people who are not paying taxes they owe, not paying fees they owe and ensuring that they do," said Abele.

Abele says he's still hopeful that debt collection can be written back into the state arena bill. He says, that way, even if there's a different county executive or county treasurer, they wouldn't be able to end the agreement with the state.