Monday, May 4, 2009

The Lesson The County Board Still Has Difficulty Learning

Today was the beginning of the trial regarding the pension scandal, in which Milwaukee County is hoping to recoup some of its losses from Mercer.

Ironically, nine years after the pension scandal started, the Milwaukee County Board still doesn't seem to have completely learned the lessons from that disaster.

When the pension scandal broke in 2002, then County Executive Tom Ament and several supervisor lost their jobs in the pursuant recalls. The lesson that they should have learned then, but still seem to struggle to remember is to "trust but verify" everything and anything that comes out of the county executive's office.

Since the pension scandal broke, the County Board has applied this rule of common sense only sporadically and with mixed results.

When the current County Executive Scott Walker wanted to privatize Mitchell Field, citing the privatization of Midway Airport in Chicago as the example of all the money the county could bring in. The board hesitated and wanted more information, before dismissing the idea. They were right in doing so. Walker's Point shows us that the deal to privatize Midway Airport has hit some turbulence.

Likewise, when Walker wanted to move the mental health complex out to the old St. Michael's Hospital, the Board did their own number crunching and found that Walker's plan would have been more expensive than building a brand new hospital. Unfortunately, the Board failed to follow through with the building and it now appears that we will have to settle for doing all the neglected repairs and modifications on the old building.

Unfortunately, the Board did drop the ball in a few occasions such as protecting the Income Maintenance program or thoroughly examining the pension obligation borrowing scheme which is sure to play havoc on next year's budget.

Now it appears that the Board is about to make the same mistake again. There are indications that several members of the County Board are ready to sign off on selling the county grounds to UWM and a private developer for what is supposed to be a school of engineering campus.

This is in spite of the fact that they already have found that the deal Walker had originally proposed was for too much land at too low of a price. One would think that this would have raised all sorts or red flags for them, but it appears that this may not be the case.

I do not know if they fully realize that they would be destroying a precious and irreplaceable natural habitat in which people, especially children, could learn a little more about the world around them. This is well proven, by both text and photos, by Dave Reid of Urban Milwaukee.
There is also this letter, from Barb Agnew, which was sent to the local paper, but never published by them:
Dear editors,

We have arrived at the 21st century and the ideals set by environmentalist are still lagging behind. The step-by-step political process that our land, habitat, and the environment go through have not changed and we continue to lose thousands of acres every day in the United States .

We understand what is required for the health of our air and water and ecosystems but are unable to change the same old 20th century outcomes.-Development wins over preservation.

Deception has been a devastating reality at the root of this problem and does not allow the knowledge of the public to participate and subdues and quells the people so as to avoid opposition. It is time we get ALL the information out.

The value to public health, green space, and learning about working ecosystems is vital if we’re going to change the future and start realizing the goals set for the environment in the 21st century.

The wildlife that has managed to survive on the last quadrant of the Milwaukee County grounds does not recognize maps, municipalities, jurisdictions, or visitors guides-we must look beyond these boundaries at the larger landscape and FIRST utilize every potential alternative site that no longer functions as ecosystem.

We have a responsibility to the environment now more than ever before and the Milwaukee County Grounds have been a model of these struggles, like so many across the US,- this is an opportunity to set an example by placing the necessary importance on saving the environment by saving the precious open space and habitat on the Milwaukee County Grounds.
Some Wauwatosa-based business groups are advocating for the deal, including a covenant to protect the Monarch Trail, but that is not needed. The County already has an agreement to preserve that land. And besides that natural consequence of losing the land, there would be many other environment impacts that could cause the ruination of the Monarch's migration pattern.

But the land preservation isn't the only issue at hand.

While it is not the County Board's job to govern the best way for UWM to carry out its ambitious expansion plans, it is its job to make sure that they are protecting the county's best interests.

There are a number of people and organizations that feel the new campus should be sited in the downtown area, including a group called UWM Downtown. (Make sure you sign the petition at this site.)

James Rowen also reproduced a letter to the editor regarding putting the new campus downtown utilizing the Park East corridor, which the county has been trying to sell for years now.

It would also behoove the County Board to closely examine the motivation for why these people want the county grounds so badly. They claim it is to construct and engineering/biomedical campus and research facility. But seeing how UWM recently teamed up with Marquette University, MSOE, and several industries to gain a federal research grant, they will want to have their facility close to the other campuses for efficiency sake.

In an editorial piece that appeared in the local paper a few weeks ago, it was also evident that the county grounds would not be the best fit into their plans:

The Milwaukee County Board thinks it is negotiating for the move of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's College of Engineering and Applied Science to the County Grounds. The hope is that this move will anchor a major industrial-biomedical research park. Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council want the school downtown. The Journal Sentinel supports locating the School of Public Health next to the Pabst property.

In all this, a focus on students, faculty and exemplary academic programs is missing from the public discussion.

UWM is in the midst of a formal master planning process led by a team of professional planners that will create a vision for UWM's future physical growth. The mantra for the exercise is "academic planning drives master planning," in recognition that faculty share responsibility for UWM's future development and that student learning lies at the heart of our work.

Numerous articles and references in the Journal Sentinel over the past two years have supported the idea that UWM needs space, particularly for research, and that expansion will occur off our present campus footprint. For example, the engineering school should move to the County Grounds in Wauwatosa to locate near potential research collaborators at the Medical College of Wisconsin and GE Healthcare. The new School of Public Health should be constructed downtown, at 11th St. and Highland Ave. next to Aurora Sinai Medical Center, so that its faculty can work on inner city health problems.

In our opinion, neither vision has been well-connected to faculty academic planning. Nor have they been tested by considering alternative sites for expansion. Furthermore, there seems to be much misinformation floating about the city and county concerning the future of these academic units.

All of this raises the question of why Walker, UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago, and all of these business investors are so adamant about building on the county grounds. Is it really because they think that would be the best site for a new campus that they wouldn't be really using, even thought there are other more practical and cost effective areas for them to build on? Or is it because they see some sort of other plan, such as something that might include the hotel and restaurant they want to also build on the site?

I would prefer to see the County Board just scrap the whole plan of selling the county grounds and keep the land as a nature preserve, as they originally agreed to do many years ago. But I am realistic enough to know that won't happen, at least not right away. I do strongly encourage the County Board to table this matter until they have had a chance to look at ALL of the facts, and not just the ones that have been cherry picked for them to consider.

Please contact your County Supervisor and tell him or her to hold off on any sale until they have had a chance to fully examine what they are proposing to do.

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