Milwaukee Losing As Summerfest Safety Costs Grow Quickly
Long-term lease agreement means the city has eaten $4 million in costs since 2011.
Making sure Summerfest is safe is getting more and more expensive and city residents are shouldering a growing amount of that burden.
The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) spent $813,000 on securing Summerfest and directing traffic in the surrounding neighborhood this year. Summerfest’s cost? $134,392 plus its annual rent payment.
Summerfest operator Milwaukee World Festival, Inc (MWF) and the city, which through Port Milwaukee owns the land Summerfest occupies, have a lease agreement that runs through 2030. The festival, which subleases the grounds to other festivals, will pay $1,475,000 to rent the 75-acre park this year.
The long-term agreement requires the non-profit to make an annual rent payment to the city as well as a supplemental service payment for “public safety services.” The latter was added via a 2009 amendment negotiated when MWF had sought long-term lease certainty as part of improving the grounds. Both payments increase on a set schedule of three percent annually through 2021 with the supplemental fee growing to a five percent annual increase for the last five years of the lease.
In a statement, MWF said it is covering MPD’s annual expenses and complying with the terms of its lease. “The City of Milwaukee determines how MWF’s annual rent payment is allocated. Milwaukee Police Department costs associated with safely operating Summerfest should be covered by MWF’s annual rent payment,” said a festival spokesperson via email.
“There’s an unfairness here and the unfairness has a very negative impact on the taxpayers of the city of Milwaukee,” said Mayor Tom Barrett Thursday afternoon in response.
“I don’t buy the notion that paying rent is equivalent to paying for security costs, those are two separate issues,” said the Mayor. He said the festival occupies valuable real estate in the city and the lease payment is based on that, not the cost of public safety.
The teams effectively rebate the cost of MPD staffing at the end of the year. City budget director Dennis Yaccarino told the Board of Harbor Commissioners Thursday morning that the Brewers paid approximately $1.1 million for security in 2018, with the Bucks paying approximately $330,000 for the 2018-2019 season. But those agreements are short term and based on annual estimates.
But why is the cost increasing so quickly? “The increase can be attributed to a combination of many factors, including additional officers being deployed, the addition of bomb technicians and the increase in officer salaries, which most notably drives the overtime salaries,” said MPD chief of staff Nick DeSiato via email to Urban Milwaukee. “The deployment level and strategy is based on the evolution of policing over the last several years, highlighted by a series of mass shootings at large events both nationally and internationally.”
Assistant Chief Michael Brunson told the board that MPD regularly meets with MWF and adjusts its plans based on local and national information. MPD also works with Summerfest’s own security team. “They’ve increased their capacity over the years,” said Brunson.
Cost aside, the commissioners praised MPD’s efforts. “Your department every year does an absolutely outstanding job in terms of both security and keeping traffic moving, giving that sense of protection that more and more people are concerned about,” said Commissioner and Historic Third Ward business improvement district chair Ron San Felippo.
DeSiato and Yaccarino told the port board that MPD is incurring greater costs than just the direct impact of securing the festival and directing traffic nearby. “They have to redeploy personnel and they have to backfill,” said Yaccarino. DeSiato said that additional overtime costs were occurred in other districts because of short staffing with officers directed towards Summerfest and the increased volume of violent crime in the summer. Members of the Board of Harbor Commissioners pushed for MPD to prepare an estimate of those costs going forward.
Yaccarino said one of the challenges facing the city is that the city does not have its own sales tax. The large crowds and out-of-town visitors at Summerfest merit security, but don’t provide the city with a direct revenue stream.
The MPD cost report comes as a regularly scheduled update to the Port Milwaukee board, but teases at what is likely to be another difficult budget debate for the city. Barrett is scheduled to unveil his executive budget in late September.
“I love Summerfest and we want Summerfest to be successful,” said Barrett. He said he would be approaching MWF to address the growing costs.
Other festivals don’t have nearly the financial impact on the police department. DeSiato said the department will spend a total of $70,000 on all of the other lakefront festivals.
The Milwaukee Police Department has an approximately $300 million budget in 2019.
Is The City Alone?
“Why should it just be the City of Milwaukee that has to carry the major load of this?” asked Alderman and Commissioner Mark Borkowski.
Turns out, it’s not. Milwaukee County also contributes property tax dollars towards services around Summerfest.
The Milwaukee County Transit System incurred a $602,000 cost related to Summerfest in 2018 according to a system spokesperson. The system provides over 10,000 daily rides to the 11-day festival, which generates plenty of revenue, but has to cope with the need to provide much of that service in a small window.
While the buses run full in one direction, they run effectively empty in the other. A substantial amount of staff overtime costs are incurred to provide the festival service. As a result, county officials have proposed scaling back or eliminating the service in various proposals in the past year.
Brunson said the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, which regularly has a highly visible deputy parked on the Hoan Bridge during the festival, works with the city. “It’s not just us,” said the Assistant Chief.
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