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Abele promises veto of museum, memorial deal

By Beth Kevit

A proposed agreement between the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center to share building operations and maintenance falls short of an audit recommendation to wean the groups from the county’s budget.

Jerome Heer, the county’s director of audits, wrote the audit and said he does not object to the additional money requested through the proposed agreement.

But County Executive Chris Abele has vowed to veto it.

“This flies in the face,” he said, “of what the board intended.”

The 2011 Milwaukee County audit sparked more than a year of negotiations between the memorial and museum. The two institutions share a home on Milwaukee’s lakefront, and the audit focused on deferred maintenance of that county-owned building.

The audit recommended the museum and memorial collaborate on “a specific timetable to transition away from dependence on Milwaukee County financial support.”

But the organizations’ proposed agreement, which several supervisors said they intend to force to a vote this month, increases the county’s annual allocation to the groups from about $1.3 million in 2012 to $1.6 million in each of the next 10 years.

“I don’t think we can look at the county going away,” said George Gaspar, president of the memorial’s board of trustees.

Representatives of the Milwaukee County War Memorial and Milwaukee Art Museum claim Tuesday to have come to an agreement about who should oversee portions of their shared lakefront location. The agreement still needs Milwaukee County’s approval. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele vowed Tuesday to veto the proposed agreement between the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center and Milwaukee Art Museum due to objections over increased funding. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Dan Keegan, director of the art museum, agreed, saying the museum expects to continue to need county money even after the 10 years of dedicated support.

Heer said when he wrote the 2011 recommendations, he was less concerned about continuing budget commitments to the museum and memorial than he was about the shape of the complex they occupy.

“Our No. 1 priority was to get the deferred maintenance addressed,” he said. “The nature of who funds it or how long they fund it is secondary.”

Despite Abele’s promised veto, County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic said Tuesday she is confident about putting the agreement to a vote. She said board members are trying to secure the 12 votes necessary to override a veto. Four supervisors accompanied her at a press conference Tuesday morning to announce their support of the proposal.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors’ Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee is expected to convene before the full board meeting Thursday, which could be a way to get the proposal to Abele before the August recess.

Under the proposed agreement, which would grant each institution oversight of the space it occupies in the Saarinen building and Kahler addition, the county would be responsible for an estimated $10 million in deferred maintenance at the complex.

According to the county’s 2013 capital budget, the county will pay that tab from 2013 through 2017, with the first half coming in 2013 and 2014.

Beyond that, though, Dimitrijevic did not say where the county would find the roughly $300,000 increase in yearly support. She said that is up to Abele.

Abele said he does not have the answer.

“You can’t come back,” he said, “and simply ask for more money.”

Supervisor John Weishan Jr., who has been a vocal supporter of the memorial throughout negotiations, said he believes the county would continue to allocate money to the institutions after the 10-year requirement, despite the 2011 audit’s recommendation, and it is too soon to say whether the level of support should go down at all.

Gaspar said he expects any changes or improvements to the museum and memorial during the next decade will determine how the county will support them.

“I think there’s an expectation that there’s going to have to be a level of funding going forward,” he said, “and it could end up being relatively close to where it is.”

But Abele said he is committed to reducing the county’s support of the memorial and museum. Through negotiations, he said, he repeatedly told the museum and memorial they should not expect the county to continue contributing much money to their operating budgets.

He bolstered that, he said, by referring to the 2011 audit, but, he added, the museum and memorial seem not to have taken his comments to heart.

“Not only are they not more efficient,” Abele said, “they’re getting more expensive. … At what point do we kind of call bullshit?”

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