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City projects face cuts

Sean Ryan
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Two projects, totaling more than $15 million, are inching closer to the chopping block as Milwaukee aldermen search for money to reduce a sewer and roadwork backlog.

The city could save $11.2 million if aldermen agree the Wisconsin Avenue lift bridge does not need to lift and $4.6 million if they decide the city attorney’s office can stay where it is rather than moving into a renovated City Hall space.

“What if we just say, ‘You know, it’s not worth it.’?” said Alderman Michael Murphy, chairman of the city’s Finance and Personnel Committee.

Milwaukee’s public works budget is strained to the point that the city has 214 miles of streets in need of repair and sewers that will get fixed every 175 years, even though they generally need such work after 90 years.

The Wisconsin Avenue bridge repair is losing its appeal given the citywide need for infrastructure work, said Alderman Robert Bauman. The city plans to spend money engineering the project in 2010.

Lift bridges near the city harbor are raised as many as 3,000 times a year to serve commercial ships, but the bridges north of Wisconsin Avenue are lifted only about 100 times a year and only for pleasure cruises.

It could be cheaper to repair the Wisconsin Avenue bridge deck without fixing the machinery that lifts it, Bauman said.

The decision would preserve the city’s bottom line while damaging that of Milwaukee Boat Line LLC, which operates river cruises. Most of those trips go away from the Wisconsin Avenue bridge toward Lake Michigan, but some head north through downtown, said Jake Chianelli, Milwaukee Boat Line president and owner.

“We put 50,000 people on our boats in a summer,” he said.

The ability to operate pleasure cruises on the river also affects property value, Chianelli said, because boaters lease dock space and buy condos with boat slips. Furthermore, he said, Milwaukee has a responsibility to serve commercial vessels on the river.

The possibility of shelving the city attorney’s office renovation on the eighth floor of City Hall also faces opposition. The proposed city budget would dedicate $2.3 million a year to the project in 2010 and 2011.

City attorneys left the eighth floor in 2006 so contractors could use the space for the Milwaukee City Hall exterior restoration. The office has been split between the seventh and 10th floors of the neighboring Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building since 2006.

“They have spent $60, $70 million to renovate the exterior of City Hall, so to leave that one floor of City Hall not finished and not refurbished seems a little pointless after they spent all of that money,” said Barbara Woldt, office manager and special assistant to the city attorney. “And from an operating perspective, we’re located here on two floors, and not even adjacent floors.”

The project to rebuild the offices with new lighting, ventilation and electrical systems got bumped from last year’s budget.

Moving back to one floor in City Hall will improve operations for city attorneys, Woldt said, by putting them closer to each other and to other city officials. And construction projects are not getting cheaper, she said.

“What they have to weigh in the whole scheme of things is the cost,” she said. “Are the costs going to go up?”

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