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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Who Was Looking Out for O’Donnell Parking Structure?

Budget cuts leave county buildings lacking inspections

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In the aftermath of the tragedy at O’Donnell Park in June, questions are being raised about the county’s stewardship of its properties.

Funds were cut out of two recent budgets for routine building inspections. And despite lawsuits over the construction of the O’Donnell structure, its last “full assessment” was in 2005, when $600,000 in repairs were identified. It’s not clear whether those repairs were made. Experts we spoke to said that a structure that had problems from its inception should have been inspected much more often.

The database system set up to store the inventory of county buildings and their condition is incomplete and the county itself isn’t even sure of the extent of needed repairs. The best estimate of county auditors is $200 million in deferred maintenance for parks buildings alone.

Routine maintenance schedules don’t exist, according to Bill Mollenhauer, staff representative for AFSCME Local 882, which represents workers at county parks, public works, the airport grounds and the zoo.

“There is next to zero preventative maintenance in the county,” Mollenhauer said.

AFSCME Local 882 President Kurt Zunker said the skeleton staff at the Parks Department would have merely swept and cleaned the O’Donnell structure, while the numbers of skilled tradespeople “have been decimated,” thanks to budget cuts during the Scott Walker administration.

According to Fran McLaughlin, spokeswoman for Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the Parks Department is responsible for putting together the list of O'Donnell Park and parking structure maintenance projects.

And while the O’Donnell structure is a Parks Department building, County Auditor Jerome Heer, who’s currently conducting an audit of facilities, said the Department of Transportation and Public Works shares some responsibility.

“But it’s sort of a diffuse line of responsibility,” he said.  “There’s not a real focused point of contact in the government for these kinds of issues government-wide.”

Parks Director Sue Black did not respond to the Shepherd’s request for an interview. Department of Transportation and Public Works chief Jack Takerian was not available for comment.

Incomplete Database, Lack of Staffing

According to County Auditor Heer, those managing county buildings have access to the Vanderweil Facility Advisors (VFA) database, which stores information about county buildings. Heer will be looking into the use of the database, how consistently it’s being used, and whether it’s current.

But he said the VFA database is just the first step toward remedying infrastructure problems.

“It’s one thing to have a good inventory and it’s something else for workers to actually remedy it,” Heer said.

But is the VFA system holding an accurate inventory of buildings?

Not really, according to a December 2009 audit of the Parks Department, which turned up a number of problems with the data. The data was so shoddy that the county can’t even pinpoint how much deferred maintenance exists: the Parks Department estimated that it’s $275 million, while the auditor estimated that it’s $200 million.

The audit explained why the numbers are so difficult to determine: “For the estimate to be meaningful, all properties need to be assessed and the results input into VFA. However, cuts in staff and funds to assess property needs have rendered this feature ineffective, not just for Parks, but for other County infrastructure as well.”

Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, a member of the public works and parks committees, said she has been concerned about the county’s crumbling infrastructure for years. She had supported former Supervisor James White’s amendments to expedite inspections of buildings, but those amendments failed to make it into the 2007 and 2008 budgets.

“We are so far behind in the assessment of the life cycles of our buildings,” Dimitrijevic said. “What good does the software do if you don’t have the manpower to input the information or make the repairs?”

She said that her Green Print program—which assesses energy efficiency in buildings to determine upgrades—was a “backdoor way to get an assessment done.”

That said, after the tragedy Parks Director Sue Black released a list of repairs made to O’Donnell Park. None of them relate to the structure’s faade, Black reported. Seven “currently critical” and other less critical problems had been remedied, according to the document, some by independent contractors and some by parks staff.

The most recent major investment was the $155,000 installation of an electric gate system and the elimination of three of the four “clerk shacks where County personnel manually collect parking fees.” The use of parking attendants was called “labor intensive and no longer cost-effective.”

AFSCME’s Mollenhauer said that instead of waiting for a crisis, the county should set aside money for ongoing repairs.

“A roof wears out over the course of 30 years,” Mollenhauer said. “You should allocate money over those years so that when the roof needs to be replaced you have the funds to do it.”