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Editorial: Milwaukee County’s cost for confirmation

The numbers march commandingly across the pages, lending support to the crisp, modern graphics and charts.

The conclusions are welcome news, the research extensive and unbiased. In fact, the 206-page consultant’s report probably is the most professional that money can buy.

Milwaukee County hired CBRE Inc. to study the county’s real estate portfolio and make recommendations. The firm did exactly what the contract required and compiled a lot of numbers.

The county has 13.8 million square feet of space in 1,000 buildings, and 75 percent of them are more than 30 years old. A focus on 25 properties showed the county could save as much as $142 million in the next 20 years if it consolidates offices, renovates some buildings, and demolishes or sells others.

That is a staggering amount of money. It is the kind of number politicians use to prove they are watching the bottom line and wisely spending taxpayer money.

But it is not a real number. It’s only a theory, a daydream, a tale that ends with the “they lived happily ever after” part, ignoring the “though they were both unemployed” part.

That $142 million does not take into account the county’s cost of consolidating offices or renovating buildings. Demolition expenses are not in the report. The proceeds from selling the properties are included with the assumption that someone will buy them.

CBRE is not to blame. The firm followed the letter of the contract and even acknowledged the county will need “a financial plan that is workable and grounded in political reality.”

The reality is the county already knew, or had the means to discover, much of what CBRE reported. The firm’s assessment of the City Campus in Milwaukee and Mental Health Center in Wauwatosa, for example, found $62.5 million of the $142 million in savings if the county consolidates offices and sells the properties.

The county knew City Campus was in bad shape, but the city alderman representing that area has predicted the property would be on the market for years before it sold.

And the county two years ago formed a committee to explore replacing the health center.

Milwaukee County officials did not need confirmation of what they already know, and they did not need a presentation on how to theoretically save money given a set of theoretical circumstances.

They needed practical advice. They needed costs and risks. They needed a grounded assessment of what they could accomplish and a realistic way to get it done.

That’s not what they asked for.

Instead, those county officials, so eager to show they are good stewards of taxpayer money, now must justify the most important number of all: $450,000.

It is not in the report. It is on CBRE’s bill.

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