Monday, January 13, 2014

Taxpayers Could Still Be On The Hook For Abele's Courthouse Fire

On July 6, 2013, there was a fire in the Milwaukee County Courthouse.  Officially, no one is admitting to having a clue as to the cause of the fire, but they have ruled out arson.  But by a report that was done earlier in the year and by the words of Chris Abele himself, it is fairly common knowledge that deferred maintenance led to the fire.

We learned about six weeks ago that the county taxpayers could be on the hook for at least part of the $10 million cost of the fire due to the shabby maintenance and lack of safety equipment.

Now we are learning that not only has the cost of the fire continued to climb, and not only is Abele and his staff still lying about the fire but now it appears that evidence crucial to the investigation was "accidentally" destroyed:
The missing equipment still remains a hot topic between two insurers county officials hope will cover virtually all the fire's costs. The issue also has prompted renewed criticism by county supervisors that Abele's administration has botched its handling of the fire issue.

The circuit breakers — each about 3 feet high and 3 feet wide and weighing up to 1,400 pounds — were dismantled and scrapped by a county employee within a few weeks of the fire, according to county officials.

The breakers were mistakenly "red-tagged" for disposal by one of the county's two property insurance companies or a subcontractor overseeing the investigation into the cause of the fire. Equipment damaged in the fire and intended to be preserved was supposed to be marked by blue tags.


But some county supervisors fear the destroyed equipment could cause trouble in getting the fire costs fully covered.

"The issue is between the insurance companies" and whether they balk at paying a portion of the county's fire claim based on foul-ups by county officials, said Supervisor John Weishan Jr.

He faulted Don Tyler, Abele's top aide, for his handling of the fire recovery and for a lack of candor in responding to supervisors' questions.

"I've asked and I didn't get a straight answer" to the question of who was responsible for throwing out the fire-damaged electrical components, Weishan said.

Abele said: "We've shared every bit of information that we can, when we've been able to, with the (County) Board."

Fire repair costs through the end of last year were estimated at $13.5 million and are expected to rise several million more before the job is completed. The county has so far received $9.5 million from the state's Local Government Property Insurance Fund, the county's primary insurer.

The fund, however, has a $1.8 million cap on claim payouts. The state fund has paid out far in excess of its cap on the expectation it could recover the excess cost from a secondary insurer, Lexington Insurance Co.
I find it hard to believe that these pieces of equipment were "mistakenly" tagged wrong and destroyed.  The pieces are just too big to be missed and not recognized for what they were unless it was done by a lay person, such as one of Abele's administrators.  Some who are familiar with the courthouse's electrical grid said that the only thing that surprised them is that this didn't happen sooner.

I am glad that the paper appears to be staying on top of this story.  Maybe they'll even look into the number of higher level people in Abele's Department of Administration who are taking sudden retirements or, as many of Abele's other top people are doing, looking for other jobs.

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