Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Okays $45 Million for New Museum

With little discussion, a 14-4 vote for $45 million in bonds and likely property tax increase.

By - Mar 15th, 2022 12:11 pm
Milwaukee Public Museum Reef Rendering. Rendering Luci Creative

Milwaukee Public Museum Reef Rendering. Rendering Luci Creative

The Milwaukee County Board approved a proposal Tuesday that will see the county borrow $45 million to help fund the planned $240 million development of a new Milwaukee Public Museum.

Though, as Urban Milwaukee previously reported, it’s unlikely the museum will retain its current name and will instead be called the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture.

In a 14-4 vote, the board approved the deal with MPM Inc., the nonprofit operator of the Milwaukee Public Museum, which is building the new museum. Currently, the plan is to build a 230,000 square foot facility at the northeast corner of W. McKinley Ave. and N. 6th St.

“We are grateful for support from Milwaukee County, in the form of $45 million in bonded funding, which will help ensure that its collections will be preserved long into the future and that this institution can continue to educate, influence and delight our community for generations to come,” said Dr. Ellen Censky, president and CEO of MPM Inc., in a statement.

The board adopted the funding plan with no discussion, except from Sup. Jason Haas, who encouraged his colleagues to vote for it. “The future of the museum hinges on our decision today,” Haas said, before the vote.

“Yes, it is a major commitment of present and future resources.” Haas said. “I think it would be worth it to have this investment in the future of our great community. One thing that is not found within the pages of the term sheet, or expressed in dollars and cents is the emotional connection that many of us have to what is today the Milwaukee Public Museum.”

The board briefly debated, and voted down, an amendment advanced by Sup. Ryan Clancy that would have paused the $1 million annual contributions to the future museum until, among other things, MPM Inc. made assurances that it would recognize its employees’ existing union, AFSCME Local 526, at the new museum. The $1 million payments are part of the county’s deal with MPM Inc. They would pay for care and maintenance of the museum’s collections, which are owned by the county, and would replace the county’s annual $3.5 million contribution to the museum’s operating budget.

The $45 million funding proposal came to the board with a doomsday clock attached. The Milwaukee Public Museum is in danger of losing its accreditation, which, once lost, would be the beginning of the end of the museum. Without it, the museum would lose eligibility for millions from grants, donors, as well as the ability to host traveling exhibits, according to MPM staff.

Millions in deferred maintenance at the current museum have imperiled the collections. In 2021, this caused the American Alliance of Museum (AAM) to table MPM’s application for re-accreditation. MPM Inc. has to submit a report to the AAM by mid-April showing concrete signs that a plan is in motion that will secure the collections at the museum.

The new museum is MPM Inc.’s plan. And the county’s contribution is the linchpin of that plan. Without public buy-in, donors won’t support the project, MPM Inc. staff have said. In 2021, the state of Wisconsin agreed to contribute $40 million to the project.

Speaking to a joint committee of supervisors this month, Dr. Censky said, “Not to be overly dramatic, but, the truth is, the future of this institution lies in your hands.”

With its vote Tuesday, the board has now given its approval for County Executive David Crowley’s administration, along with Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske and Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun, to set about finalizing the deal with MPM Inc. and to prepare municipal bonds for issuance. The comptroller will eventually return to the board with specific parameters for the bonds and final approval for their issuance.

What the board didn’t decide Tuesday was how the county would pay for the debt it has now agreed to take on. Given varying interest rates and repayment schedules, the bonds could cost taxpayers approximately $55 to $63 million over the next 15 years.

Given the county’s structural deficit, any new spending must be funded by cuts to existing government services, but probably not in this case due to a loophole seized on by county officials. The option being held up by the Department of Administration and the comptroller is to raise property taxes annually to pay for the bonds. The comptroller told supervisors there is an exemption in state law that allows the county to exceed statutory limits on tax increases in order to pay down debt.

2 thoughts on “MKE County: Board Okays $45 Million for New Museum”

  1. dmkrueger2 says:

    The bonds could cost taxpayers approximately $55 to $63 million over the next 15 years.
    – so that’s $3MM/yr over 15yrs = $60MM.

    Right now, the county annually contributes $3.5 million to the museum’s operating budget. In the future, we’ll only need to pay $1MM per year for operating budget for a total of $4MM.

    So the net increase to tax payers is the $0.5MM.

    Let me know if I’m missing something:

  2. CraigR says:

    I guess a new building is an easier sell to big donors but I wish they just fix the existing building’s issues and not build something that’s much smaller. I fear that we’re going to lose a significant amount of the great displays that we currently have. I just don’t see the point.

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