Milwaukee County officials are not optimistic their 2013 budget can accommodate a $10 million repair bill for the county’s War Memorial Center.
Those repairs are critical, however, to ongoing negotiations between the Milwaukee Art Museum and War Memorial, which share the center’s space.
The art museum, which occupies about three-quarters of the space, seeks control of the center, which the memorial group oversees. The museum said it wants control so it can better regulate the indoor environment to protect artwork, citing leaks and crumbling concrete as threats to its investments. The War Memorial has displays and meeting space in its portion of the center.
A 2011 county audit found more than $5 million in needed repairs at the center and the county, which owns the center, tasked the memorial and art museum with paying for those repairs, claiming it was bogged down by other responsibilities.
The museum has offered to spend another $15 million on renovations if it is granted control of the buildings’ maintenance.
At recent meetings regarding the negotiations, speculation circulated among state veterans that the museum seeks control so it can edge veterans out of the center.
“The veterans have concerns about the ongoing funding and the necessary improvements,” David Kurtz, department adjutant for the American Legion Department of Wisconsin and lead negotiator for the War Memorial, said Thursday.
Milwaukee Art Museum Director Dan Keegan denied his group wants to edge veterans out, and said the museum could better serve them if it were granted control of the shared space.
“Whether we like it or not,” he said Thursday during a presentation of the museum’s plans, “the county has put its stake in the ground. … There ain’t enough money to go around.”
The museum has maintained that Milwaukee County should pay $10 million for repairs that should have been done already. Ken Krei, head of the museum’s board of trustees and member of its negotiating team, said the $10 million is based on the 2011 audit and expert opinions solicited by the museum.
Keegan estimated the museum has raised half of the $15 million it is willing to contribute for renovations, but said he was concerned perceived discord among veterans could deter possible donors from stepping forward with the rest.
After listening to Keegan’s presentation Thursday, Kendel Feilen of Port Washington, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, said he still wasn’t sure where he stood on the issue beyond wanting to preserve the War Memorial.
“It’s hard to really understand what is truth, what is fiction,” Feilen said, “but the bottom line is, where is the county?”
At a July meeting to update veterans on negotiations, Krei suggested the county could raise the $10 million through bonding.
The county has about $27 million in available bonds for 2013, said Pamela Bryant, the county’s capital finance manager. That limit would make a $10 million commitment to one project in 2013 impractical, county officials say.
County supervisors will get their first look at County Executive Chris Abele’s proposed 2013 budget at their Sept. 27 meeting. Brendan Conway, Abele’s director of communications, said the county executive’s budget could include some money for war memorial repairs.
Abele has spoken with negotiators to gauge their progress, Conway said, but with the deadline for his proposal approaching, any money set aside for the memorial will result from Abele’s judgment rather than negotiations, even if they were to wrap up this month.
While he could not disclose a possible figure, Conway said any 2013 allocation to the memorial would be far less than $10 million.
Supervisor John Weishan Jr., a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and War Memorial advocate, said the county shouldn’t be expected to spend $10 million at once but instead should commit to chipping away at repairs with smaller contributions each year. The memorial receives yearly allocations from the county for capital and operational spending and a portion of that is set aside for the museum.
“A more reasonable number in a one-year budget (for repairs),” Weishan said, “is $1.2 million to $1.5 million.”
He said that figure is based on a five-year capital plan drawn up with Dave Drent, executive director of the War Memorial. Drent said the plan was submitted to the county about a month ago as part of the budget process and details the buildings’ necessary repairs.
“It’s a wish list of needed items,” Drent said, “so there’s no fluff in it.”
If Abele doesn’t commit to at least $1.2 million for repairs, Weishan said he would try to amend the budget.
“I will personally try to put the money in,” he said. “But if the county exec doesn’t put the money in, it’s obvious that his commitment to the War Memorial and to veterans isn’t what it should be.”
Supervisor Mark Borkowski, a War Memorial trustee, agreed the county should come up with a plan now to spread the $10 million over multiple budgets. Without naming a figure he would like to see, he said he would work to alter Abele’s proposal to increase capital spending for the center if it seemed too low.
Supervisor David Bowen said he was concerned about where the county could find $10 million for repairs, adding that he expected it to be a difficult process. He said he wanted to see some of that money in Abele’s proposal but did not have a dollar amount in mind.
Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo said while he agrees they are needed, he does not expect to see a large chunk of available 2013 bonds go toward war memorial repairs. The county took advantage of Build America Bonds in 2010 to finance 2011 and 2012 capital projects, which meant it could not issue other bonds during those two years. Sanfelippo said the county has a lengthy list of necessary repairs that includes those identified during those two years.
“It’s hard to say, ‘OK, let’s spend $10 million down at the art museum,’” he said, “when we have so many things in the district that need to be done.”
The county has not committed to covering any of the $10 million for repairs. That reality is not lost on Keegan, who said approaching the county for money after negotiations with the War Memorial end would be “a leap of faith.”
After the museum’s presentation Thursday, Feilen said it sounded like a nice solution, but he still was undecided.
“I have faith,” he said, “it will all be worked out.”