Abele Admits to Secret Ongoing Land Sale Negotiations
Senator Larson calls on Abele to come clean about all land sales, saying public has right to know
County Executive Chris Abele admitted Thursday during a debate hosted by WisPolitics.com that he is involved in ongoing, secret negotiations to sell County-owned land, but wouldn’t specify what land he intends to sell or to which entity he intends to sell the land.
During the debate, Abele was asked by the moderator “Do you have any pending land sales that we all need to know about?” Abele first dodged the question by referring to a past land sale of the City Campus, a former hospital on 27th street, but was then asked the question a second time in the context of the new powers he was granted by legislative Republicans under Act 55.
In his second part of the answer, Abele admitted to ongoing negotiations over selling County land that is currently leased by an unspecified entity, saying:
“In this case one of the institutions we’re talking about – we’re interested in the land – we leased it to them, right now, they don’t pay taxes on that land. We are, the county, subsidizing at a level, that was intended at the beginning to help them grow like they have. It was not intended forever to basically be a ‘Hey, here’s a subsidy, even though now you’re gonna make it.’ And, by being able to work with them to change that – allowing us to then have more resources to put back into services. And if we can do that in a way that gives them more control over their planning, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. If Medical College, Children’s [Hospital], or anyone else says ‘Hey we’re interested in buying the land that we’re on, we’re a non-profit, we serve the community, we’re land-locked,’ it’s worth us being interested in a least some certainty.”
In response, Senator Larson released the following statement.
“The power over land sales is about the future of our community. It shouldn’t take a debate less than a week before an election, where Mr. Abele’s feet are finally held to the fire, for him to reveal that he is involved in ongoing, secret land deals with these new powers he has, which he has said he wouldn’t use. This is where the lack of any democratic oversight becomes a problem. Concentrating power like this is an invitation to corruption.
“Not only is Abele admitting that he’s involved in negotiations over land sales, he is lying about the powers granted to him under the 2015-17 state budget. Abele has repeatedly and incorrectly said he needs a sign-off from the County comptroller and a local mayor or village president. This is false. First, the local mayor or village president is not even mentioned in the law. Second, the law only requires two out of three entities to sign off on land sales, not all three.
“Most disturbingly, the new powers granted to Abele eliminate any real oversight by cutting the publicly accountable County Board entirely out of the process.
“The public needs to know what County land Abele is in talks to sell. He seems to be hinting that the land may be part of the County Grounds, much of which is conserved but which may not be properly zoned as parkland to avoid sale under Abele’s new powers.”
Act 55 allows the Milwaukee County Executive to ignore the objection of the independently elected Comptroller and sell any County-owned land that is not explicitly zoned as a park, with only the signature of someone with real estate experience who lives in the municipality where the land is located, and is appointed by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council (which consists of the elected executives of the county’s 19 municipalities).
Alternately, the county executive can sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of non-park County property with the signature of the County’s comptroller. The law does not require the signature of all three entities, and does not require the support or signature of a city/town mayor or a village president.
Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which “promotes healthy communities” statewide, told Urban Milwaukee that Abele’s power over land deals an “absurd corruption of the democratic process. It’s a horrible, horrible precedent to grant this much power over public land to one person.” Hinniker added that “It may be quicker and easier not to get public input about land-use issues, but that doesn’t make it right.”
“The new sale and lease power doesn’t extend to any of Wisconsin’s other 10 county execs. A Wisconsin League of Municipalities official says he doesn’t know of any mayor or village president with similar power. Nor do any of Abele’s counterparts in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri or Ohio have that kind of authority over county property, according to officials in the four other Midwestern states where counties elect chief executives.”