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In year-end interview, County Executive Abele says he’s still not happy with arena funding deal

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MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele plans to ask the state Legislature to change a contentious aspect of the Milwaukee Bucks arena deal finalized this summer.

The $500 million arena, which is scheduled to open in 2018, is funded by $250 million from the current and former owners and $250 million from public sources, a number that will increase because of interest. Milwaukee County is responsible for $80 million over 20 years.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

Abele had expected to pay for the county’s portion by having the state collect unpaid debt in the county.

Democrats, including Abele’s current opponent for county executive, said it would be too harsh on the poor and stripped out the provision before approving the bill this summer.

“I’m going to work very hard – already am – to change the legislation and put that part back in,” Abele told FOX6 News in an interview assessing the year.


The arena deal was one of many issues in 2015 where Abele and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors disagreed.

A lawsuit filed in October by board Chairman Theo Lipscomb against Abele remains unresolved. Lipscomb is challenging Abele’s authority to set pay for staffers in the county executive’s office.

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Theo Lipscomb

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Theo Lipscomb

Abele clashed with supervisors when he vetoed $4 million of funding that the board had allocated to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. Abele said he was doing so, in part, because of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke’s controversial comments about African-American protesters. Clarke threatened Abele with a lawsuit.

The county board ultimately overrode Abele’s veto and restored the $4 million.

Abele said he will "always try" to improve his relationship with Clarke -- suggesting that he could implement "hat day" with the cowboy hat-wearing sheriff -- but added that voters should expect a similar effort from Clarke.

'Power grab'

In an interview, Lipscomb said the county executive was engaging in a “power grab” on multiple fronts, including by seeking and winning the authority to sell off county assets without the board’s approval.

“I wouldn’t want my best friend to have that kind of power,” Lipscomb said. “It’s a recipe for disaster and corruption and bad government.”

Asked about the worsening relationship, Abele said he remained willing to meet with county supervisors. Despite the disagreements, Abele said he wouldn’t attack the integrity of other elected officials.

“It’s not about a power grab,” he said.

Arena deal

On the arena, Lipscomb said Abele negotiated with state leaders earlier this year without the knowledge of county board members. The resulting deal was bad for the county, Lipscomb said.

“That whole arena fiasco is an illustration of how this county executive thinks: that he’s the one with all the great ideas,” Lipscomb said.

Abele said the budget approved this fall plugs the $4 million hole caused by the Bucks arena legislation. But Abele said he hoped that practice wouldn’t continue.

“I’d like to further restore more programs, which is why I’m going to back to the state and try and put back into legislation the deal we’d all agreed to in the first place,” he said.

State Senator Chris Larson

State Senator Chris Larson

State Senator Chris Larson, who is running against Abele, was one of the lawmakers who stripped the debt collection provision from the arena bill.

"Are you serious?” Larson asked, when told about Abele’s plans to seek changes from the Legislature. “He’s still trying to build an arena for billionaires on the backs of the poor and the people who are struggling to pay bills.”

Other priorities

Abele touted achievements in reducing the county's chronically homeless population and creating development funds for impoverished neighborhoods. He credited his administration for expanding the county's bus routes while holding fares steady.

Lipscomb and Larson noted that Milwaukee County was required to expand bus routes because of a lawsuit, with Larson charging that Abele "had nothing to do with the expansion."

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