Thursday, July 18, 2013

Abele's Chickens Come Home To Roast

It's closing in on two weeks since a fire hit the Milwaukee County Courthouse.  Although an official cause has been released by Milwaukee County Emperor Chris Abele, reports indicate that the fire started due to an outdated and out of code electrical system, something which Abele knew about and chose not to address.

The bill for just cleaning up the soot and smoke damage has already hit the $2 million mark, and does not include any further worked needed, such as the replacement of the faulty electrical systems.  It also does not include the time off some workers have gotten, the cost of the two giant generators put in until they fix the electrical system.

Meanwhile, Abele has been pushing to open up as much of the courthouse as he can as fast as he can.  All reports - except the ones from Abele himself - indicate that he is being reckless in his decision making and might be going too fast, especially in this deadly heat wave we are having.

Look at the experiences of Amy Turim, who had to be in the courthouse today:
Speaking of wilting, I spent the afternoon yesterday in the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The conditions at the Courthouse and the lack of organization regarding calendaring trials has me seriously questioning why the County allows the building to be open to the public at all, and why preventative maintenance on the electrical system was not attempted prior to the meltdown.

First, I will describe my experience when I appeared on a matter for my job on Wednesday. This matter was scheduled for the previous week, and cancelled due to the electrical fire that took down the power at the complex. I was notified of the new appearance date by my attorney a mere four hours prior to the time of the hearing, and was able to arrive at the courthouse on time. If my attorney did not see the appointment on the calendar the day before, it would have been possible that we would have missed the appointment. The other party in the hearing was not notified at all. I knew the other party in the hearing, and took it upon myself to notify them of the new date. This type of notification is not practical, advisable or feasible in most instances, and should not be relied upon in a professional court setting.

Some other people waiting for hearings indicated they arrived after calling in to check when their case would be scheduled for. A few others I talked with said they heard to call in based on the advice of friends who saw news stories asking people to inquire via telephone. This is certainly less than ideal, given the serious nature of a lot of the proceedings. The Milwaukee County Courthouse page on the County web site does not mention the closure at all, or what to do when hearings previously scheduled are missed due to such a closure. Milwaukee County’s general website homepage lists basic instructions for closure related issues here, but again, no advice on determining which cases are calendared when. Certainly this is a difficult situation with a lot of moving parts, but Milwaukee County should be doing better at disseminating information to the public.

While waiting in the courtroom, I observed cases being called without parties to the cases present. Those cases were adjourned when parties did not appear within a half hour or so, and scheduled on an alternate day, after proper notifications can be made to all parties. Some of these matters were more time sensitive than others, but even a casual observer could discern that scheduling matters without proper notifications was creating inefficiency. Due to the rescheduling of these matters to a third date when the parties did not appear for this rescheduled time, this also seems to be a waste of money as well.

Speaking of money, the electrical repair is going to be expensive. The first check cut to the renovation company was for two million dollars, and that number is not based on known costs. The insurance deductible for the county is seventy five thousand dollars, and reports in the Journal Sentinel from the County indicate the County believes insurance will cover this matter. However, Milwaukee County has been in receipt of a report from CBRE since February of 2013 that indicated the electrical system was ready to go kaput (in non-technical terms). I am not sure how or if being in receipt of that report will impact the insurance claim, but that question will certainly need to be answered in the coming weeks. Milwaukee County had allocated the funds to secure the facilities report ($450,000 in funds) in 2012, but waited until the end of the year to procure assessment services. Perhaps if the impending issues with the system were reported earlier, repairs could have prevented the chaos we are currently experiencing. Chris Abele would like us to not point fingers and place blame, but at some point these matters have to be addressed or we will be repeating the same failures on all of the other County properties inspected.

The current Courthouse power supply comes from a generator, which means no air-conditioning can run, and it was hot. A few portable cooling units were set up, but they reached the approximate foot radius of the machine. In the cavernous halls of the Courthouse where they were placed, the difference was minimal at best. The Red Cross had volunteers sitting with coolers on a few floors, which were supposed to contain bottled water donated by MillerCoors and cooled with ice from Arctic Glacier. There were also wet washcloths to towel off with. This was a kind gesture on the part of the corporations, but when I arrived at the Courthouse at one in the afternoon, every floor was out of bottles of water, and one volunteer indicated she had been out for over an hour. She was told replacements were on the way. When I left at four, they had not yet arrived. The drinking fountains (okay, bubblers) that I tried were all non-functional. The Journal Sentinel indicated air-conditioned cooling rooms were available to visitors who needed a reprieve from the stifling heat. However, the only “cooling room” that I saw signs for or heard about was a Milwaukee County Transit Bus parked outside the Courthouse, which was running while stationary with the AC on. This mobile “cooling room” was located at least 50 feet from the nearest courthouse entrance, which might has well have been a few miles if you were having a serious issue. Paramedics were on site on the courthouse lawn, in the event they were needed.

Many of the people I encountered were elderly, disabled, or heat intolerant. I suppose at certain temperatures everyone is heat intolerant, but many people indicated medical conditions or medications were to blame for their extreme discomfort. Others told me they refused to use the elevator because people got stuck on it on Monday when the Courthouse first reopened beyond the first floor. They chose instead to try to navigate the staircases with dozens of thick electrical cords running from the generators to the courtrooms. This too struck me as a serious hazard.
Two deputies assigned inside the courthouse became ill from the heat, with one having to go home.

It's almost as if Abele is very anxious to get the courthouse open again so that people might start forgetting that there had even been a fire and the fact that the fire was one which he could have prevented. That is, people might forget, until the bill for all the cleaning and repairs come due.

And he's going to get that courthouse open no matter how many people will have to pay for it!


  1. She didn't even mention the screaming kids, the erratic elevators that are perpetually packed (the place will close again when someone faints or dies in a broken elevator), or the absence of food. Of course you cansit outside in a cool bus, nut thenyou have to stand in the heat so our benevolent government can make sure we're not bringing bottle openers in.

    1. and then there is also the lack of air monitoring data, potential asbestos ceiling and floor tile dust floating around, judges wearing gas masks, subsequent small fires, all the rodents and bugs crawling up out of the basement, loose wires and potential that none of this will be covered by insurance

  2. Capper, thanks.

  3. You really must admit that a courthouse is a rather socialist concept. Requiring taxpayers to pay for air conditioning is more like communism. The founding fathers did not have air conditioned public spaces in mind. Ronald Reagan probably didn't use it either. Things worked just fine usually, even without modern conveniences and ideas. Why can't private companies be allowed to sell drinking water and rent access to the cool rooms in the courthouse? The profits could help pay for the sidewalk chalk graffiti removal.

  4. Curious, when the Board found $4 million in health care trend savings and eliminated over a million bucks in proposed new positions in the 2013 budget, did they...

    A> Spend the money on fringe benefits


    B> Spend the money on deferred maintenance?

    The CBRE report came out in February. That means there were 4 board meetings before the fire...can you point me to where a Supervisor has "done the heavy lifting" by proposing to fund replacement of the electrical system which the Executive must have vetoed?

    Thanks for your assistance.

  5. Actually, Abele dragged his feet on even getting the CBRE report so that it's final report - the one you're referring to - came out in 2013. The budget for 2013 was already set with more than sufficient funds to address this.

    Secondly, Abele had the discretion to direct the money for the necessary repairs, if he wasn't so busy trying to usurp power.

    Surely you're not advocating that the Board micromanage things because the Emperor is incapable of doing his job, are you?

  6. You failed to answer the question.

    You probably won't answer this one either: where were the funds available to do this, specifically?

    You're simply wrong on the CBRE report, there was no foot-dragging. What actually happened is that some supervisors, as is typical, felt it should have just been as easy as issuing a press release or passing a resolution demanding it got done. It took time to develop the goals and scope of the project, and to pick a vendor.

    Unlike yourself, I am not actually looking to blame the Board as you claim in your new post. This was an accident that partially, if not more, had its roots in many years of neglect by the Walker administration and the Board. Remember, the Board controls the purse strings - they've had ample opportunities to put more money into maintenance funding but have instead chosen to put it into restoring positions or fringe benefits.

    You just want to scapegoat because you're emotionally invested in defending something, that's all.

    1. You are correct that Scott Walker did divert $120 million in capital gains to fill holes in his budgets. Just as Abele is diverting funds that would have provided adequate staffing at BHD or in other services.

      Since Abele is not claiming a huge $24 million surplus from 2012 - which really means he either overtaxed or under-served the public - and is already claiming a significantly sized one for 2013, there is more than enough money that he could have allocated.

      And IIRC, Abele vetoed even having the study done. If that is what you call eagerness, I don't know what you would consider reluctance.

      And let us not forget that Abele is the one that starts the ball rolling with his proposed budget which is the basis for everything. The buck starts and stops with the executive.

      But you won't like this answer either, since it is an accurate reflection of how government works.