Green Bay official wants lawmaker to explain plan to disband stadium district. 'Any good idea should be open to public scrutiny.'

Richard Ryman
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY - State Rep. David Steffen has yet to present his plan to disband the Green Bay/Brown County Professional Football Stadium District to the Green Bay city council, but that opportunity might be coming.

Green Bay won't necessarily be the hardest sell for the proposal — that would be the Packers, who've made their opposition to the idea clear.

However there are questions to be answered about Green Bay's role should the stadium district dissolve, including how it would pay for its added responsibilities, such as stadium maintenance, said Jesse Brunette, city council president. Brunette said he's keeping an open mind. 

"The last thing we want to do is get legislation passed that is harmful to the city of Green Bay, the Packers and our community as a whole," he said. "There are many unanswered questions. I don’t want to haphazardly get the city involved in something we might regret."

Fireworks go off during the national anthem over Lambeau Field before the start of the Green Bay Packers game against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 20, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. This was the first regular season game with a full stadium of fans since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Steffen, a Republican from Howard, would end the district and its seven-person governing board, which oversees the Green Bay Packers' lease at Lambeau Field, and pay to property tax payers some of the $81 million set aside for stadium maintenance costs through 2031.

In Steffen's interpretation, the stadium board has outlived its legislative purpose, which he said was limited to overseeing the construction costs related to Lambeau Field, ensuring the bonds were properly paid and overseeing the sales tax through its duration.

The sales tax was retired in 2015.

Under the proposal, which Steffen said is only a draft, the money set aside for Lambeau Field maintenance would be distributed to Brown County property owners in $600 checks. He also would give $7 million to other government and private entities, and $19 million to the city of Green Bay, which also would get proceeds from a 10% stadium ticket tax. 

The city then would be responsible for lease obligations now filled by the stadium board. Steffen has acknowledged the city might need to borrow money to meet the obligations, at least in the short term. That could be a hard sell to the city.

"The city of Green Bay is over $200 million in debt. Does the city and property owners have the appetite to support more debt?" Brunette said.

Brunette said he would invite Steffen to make a presentation to the city finance committee or the council as a whole. 

"Any good idea should be open to public scrutiny," Brunette said.

Brunette has concerns, particularly in regard to returning money raised through a sales tax to property owners only, which he says "has a populist feel to it."  

He's also realistic about how government works. He believes a mechanism would be needed to ensure there is adequate money for Lambeau Field maintenance. 

"Typically, in most governments, they are decent at constructing new things, but it’s always the maintenance that is one of the faster things to be removed from budgets," he said. "There could be the temptation to skimp on maintenance."

Just such a mechanism in the stadium district creation accounts for the money Steffen proposes to distribute.

The Green Bay mayor's office did not return calls on the issue.

Steffen is not on the agenda to address the stadium board during its quarterly meeting scheduled for Monday, but the district's future and its previous analysis of its options are.

"We had kind of set to revisit the report because we have so many new members and we want to get everybody back up to speed," said stadium board chairman Chuck Lamine. "We did a lot of work into that at that time."

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Overall, Lamine takes the don't-fix-what-isn't-broken point of view.

"I think the stadium district board takes its responsibilities pretty seriously," Lamine said. "We are pretty fortunate that a lot of thought went into the creation of the district. I think a lot of good work was done at the time to address ... long term maintenance. (Steffen's proposal) does not seem to be consistent with the statutory direction we were given, as well as the lease responsibilities."

Steffen's proposal has no support from government officials who've spoken about it publicly, but he said an unscientific online survey he conducted favored the idea.

He said 220 Brown County residents responded to the survey he posted at stadiumdistrictfuture.com before he closed it. That equals about one-tenth of 1% of the county's adult population. Steffen said his office had not done a breakdown of where responders lived based on zip codes.

On the whole, about two-thirds of responses favored his proposal to disband the stadium board and restrict how Green Bay should spend revenue generated by the lease with the Packers.

The view of Lambeau Field from the penthouse of the U.S. Venture Center, the new office building in the Green Bay Packers' Titletown District in Ashwaubenon.

The proposal would ensure the city spend the necessary money to maintain the stadium, he said. 

"That was probably the most important thing that people had mentioned. We have a beautiful facility here and it's incredibly important we maintain it as a showpiece and destination point. There was a concern the city of Green Bay would screw it up," Steffen said.

The fund that Steffen wants to eliminate was largely paid for by the sales tax. His plan to give money to property tax payers would leave out many of the county's citizens who contributed to the fund and don't own property.

Steffen said there is no means by which all county taxpayers could be included directly. 

"In 2015, the only way to fairly ensure everyone equally benefitted (from a distribution of excess sales tax) was to give it back to governments. I don’t think people felt the benefit as much as they would have liked. The only alternative way is through property tax," Steffen said. "I tried to do some recognition of the fact that non-homeowners are part of this process as well and have some money go to economic development and some aesthetic programs." 

That approach elicited the least support on Steffen's survey. Only half supported "small business grants, and outdoor public art initiatives in every Brown County city and village ... to provide recognition and benefit for the non-homeowning contributors to the Stadium District since 2001 – local businesses, renters, and visitors."

About 80 responders offered comments, which Steffen said was valuable for drafting legislation.

Steffen contends it would be better for the Packers to deal directly with Green Bay government, but he also contemplates enacting certain requirements and restrictions on the city, ideas he said came from survey comments. For example, he would require the city to provide annual audits and physical inspections of the stadium, both of which the stadium board currently does, and he'd restrict how the city could spend money that exceeds stadium maintenance needs.

"If my bill passes, the law will require the new revenue (in excess of Lambeau maintenance money) be used for the following purposes: road repairs and upgrades, law enforcement, taxable economic development, and additional tax relief checks for Green Bay residents," he said.

Steffen said that eventually there will be more than enough money to cover stadium maintenance costs. The Packers' lease with the city and stadium district requires the team be reimbursed for operations and maintenance costs determined by a formula. The reimbursement increases 2% a year, and for 2019, the previous year when the stadium was fully used, the payment was $13.2 million. The ticket tax provides about $7.8 million per year. The city would be responsible for making up the difference, likely through borrowing.

"Funds have been set aside for long-term maintenance through the lease. That responsibility is not going to magically disappear just because all the money is returned," Lamine, the stadium board chairman, said.

The stadium district board is composed of three appointees from Green Bay, three from Brown County and one from the village of Ashwaubenon. One board member is state Sen. Rob Cowles, a Republican who lives in Allouez. He could not be reached for comment on the proposal. 

Opponents of the proposal question whether the district can be legally disbanded without the agreement of all parties to the lease, which are the Packers, the stadium district and the city of Green Bay.

Steffen contends he can legislatively remove the stadium district from the lease whether the other parties agree or not.

The Packers have made it clear they want the stadium board to continue and Ashwaubenon village board members gave a cool reception to the plan when Steffen presented it to them on Nov. 23. 

"I have the feeling they like the system they have now," Steffen said of the Packers. "I don't blame them. There's very little justification of expenses incurred. It’s a pretty user-friendly system for them."

Lamine said the district does not rubber stamp spending or allow the Packers to get a pass on things they are supposed to be providing, such as special events at Lambeau Field. Those have included NCAA football games and Billy Joel and Paul McCartney concerts.

"This isn’t an ego thing for the stadium district board. This is about responsibilities for a very important resource for our community. I think we’ve succeeded in that and continue succeed in that," he said. "It comes down to are the partners still satisfied? Is the job being done adequately and properly?"

Contact Richard Ryman at (920) 431-8342 or rryman@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RichRymanPG, on Instagram at @rrymanPG or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichardRymanPG/.

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