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Milwaukee roadwork takes edge in budget showdown

Rob St. John steps on a spike to hold down a temporary road plate positioned by the small excavator operated by Brian Williams. The crew, from KS Energy Services Inc., New Berlin, was covering a trench during a gas line project in the 200 block of South First Street in Milwaukee. (Photo by David La Haye)

Rob St. John steps on a spike to hold down a temporary road plate positioned by the small excavator operated by Brian Williams. The crew, from KS Energy Services Inc., New Berlin, was covering a trench during a gas line project in the 200 block of South First Street in Milwaukee. (Photo by David La Haye)

Sean Ryan
sean.ryan@dailyreporter.com

Milwaukee’s dedication to street construction is putting city department leaders on a bumpy road toward office renovation approvals.

The Milwaukee Department of Public Works’ proposed long-range budget dedicates $85.8 million to street projects between 2011 and 2016, starting with $15.3 million in next year’s budget. But city officials charged with prioritizing projects are wondering how to weigh the importance of street work against requests to improve city offices.

“Everybody wants new space,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, a member of the city’s Capital Improvements Committee, “and I don’t know how we deal with it.”

Prioritizing projects pits hard numbers — 214 miles of city streets in need of repair or replacement, according to a 2008 report — against such less-quantifiable benefits as an efficiently run city attorney’s office. This is the third year the city attorney’s office has requested money to renovate the eighth floor of City Hall, but city officials have not included the estimated $4.8 million in their capital budgets.

There is no way to put a specific value on moving back to City Hall, said Barbara Woldt, office manager and special assistant to the city attorney. But it would be an improvement over the split between two floors of the city’s Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building, she said.

But the office can maintain performance if it must stay in the Zeidler building for another year, she said.

“I think we continue to do the best that we can, given the circumstances and where we are,” Woldt said. “I’m not going to say there’s going to be a great impact because there probably won’t be.”

The city every year limits the amount of money it will borrow for new projects, said Budget Director Mark Nicolini. In the past, city departments drafted proposed budgets that would pay for some projects and delay others. The city’s Capital Improvements Committee this year is taking the responsibility and will weigh the merits of department-requested projects.

“We’re certainly highlighting core infrastructure and local streets and sewers,” Nicolini said, “because of not only their importance but also in terms of needs moving forward.”

But considering the eighth floor of City Hall is the last portion of the building interior in need of major repair, Woldt said, it is in the city’s broader interest to get the entire building in working order.

“We’re not advocating for the Taj Mahal,” she said. “This is just space to bring it up to the appearance of other City Hall offices, and the mechanicals on the floor need to be updated and that is perhaps a quarter of the cost.”

At a certain point, the city will hurt itself if it defers too much office work, even if streets are a priority, Bauman said. If departments are using outdated equipment or their office space is too impractical, the city will lose money through performance, he said.

“You can’t have people laboring away in un-air-conditioned space,” Bauman said, “with 1930s typewriters.”

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