Waukesha County recommends giving financially-stricken museum monthly payments

Chris Kuhagen
The Waukesha County Museum is housed inside the old Waukesha County Courthouse building in downtown Waukesha. The Waukesha County Board Executive Committee is recommending to the County Board to limit museum funding to monthly payments based on the museum's financial troubles.
Published on: 1/21/2014

With a soon-to-be-released audit expected to show significant financial troubles at the Waukesha County Museum, the County Board is taking action.

At the request of Supervisor Peter Wolff, the County Board Executive Committee unanimously recommended an ordinance that limits how the museum receives its money from the county this year.

The board is expected to vote on the ordinance at its Tuesday meeting at the Waukesha County Courthouse.

The ordinance comes two months after the County Board passed a budget that included $150,000 for the museum. But as Wolff said at Monday's Executive Committee meeting, the decision was "based on information we were provided at that time."

Since then, Waukesha County Museum Board Chairman Tom Constable issued a document in advance of the audit being released outlining the museum's issues. It could show a $250,000 deficit.

"This ordinance doesn't change what we're allocating to them for 2014," Wolff said. "What it does is set some parameters so we can evaluate the audit as soon as it's available and determine whether further funding is appropriate. I didn't want to simply cut funding because I don't want that to be the cause of the museum ceasing to exist. But I do want to be prudent with taxpayers' dollars as we move forward.

"I hope that the museum is forthcoming in providing the audit so our administration can determine how funding is going to proceed and whether funding is going to proceed."

Waukesha County Director of Administration Norm Cummings said that when the museum was under its 10-year agreement with the county for funding (after it sold the old courthouse building, 101 W. Main St., to the museum in 2002), the museum received 60 percent of the money in January and 40 percent in June.

If the ordinance passes next week, the museum will now receive $12,500 per month.

Supervisor Gilbert Yerke, who is the liaison between the Waukesha County Museum Board and the Waukesha County Board, said preliminary results of the audit, for the fiscal year of 2012-13 — which ends in June — were expected to be shared with the museum board on Tuesday. The final audit will be released at the end of the month.

"The museum can live with this," Yerke said of the monthly funding. "I believe the museum is making a financial attempt (at turning it around)."

Two expected results of the audit, Constable recently said, are that several invoices have not been paid, and some donor restricted funds may have been used for other museum purposes.

"The audit is helpful until that point but a lot of stuff has happened since," Cummings said. "Every month after that could be a very different picture."

At Monday's meeting, Cummings said the Museum Board wasn't even aware of these issues. One reason for this was because former Chief Executive Officer Kirsten Lee Villegas had the museum's outside accountant report to her, not the board.

"Some of the things that came out later — I'm not sure if they were trying to hide during the budget process," Cummings said. "I don't think (the board) knew. Some of the things were just relayed to them after the former director left. ... They really need to have different internal controls put in place there. The board needs to have more information directly relayed to them, and it can't just stay with a couple people that are in administration there."

While he didn't get specific, Yerke was also bothered by what took place at the museum.

"There were some things after the executive director left and I'm not trying to point any fingers," Yerke said. "But after the executive director left they found some things that you wouldn't think about."

Yerke said a search committee for the next CEO has been formed; the museum wants to relieve interim CEO Dan Finley of his duties by the end of March. The position will have an "emphasis on fundraising," Yerke said.

Cummings said that if problems persist and "we believe those doors are going to be shuttered in June" funding the museum would stop.

"We don't want to push (the museum) over the cliff," Cummings said. "On the other hand we don't want to send money to a place that is going to be shuttered. I don't think there will be mismanagement going forward, but they have to deal with what happened in the past."

After Yerke suggested the city would get the museum if it were to fail, Cummings replied "God bless them."

Another one of the museum's problems is that the museum did not pay off all of the expenses from the new Les Paul exhibit that opened last summer. But Yerke told the executive committee the museum recently received $80,000 from an anonymous donor that will cover all of its unpaid expenses.

An outside CPA firm also went into the museum to conduct "field work" that includes internal control commentary and a cash flow projection, Supervisor James Heinrich said.

"If they find something significant or irregular that will be in the financial statements," Heinrich said.

Last year, Cummings said the museum's audit showed a loss of $30,000.

"That's not something that would send off alarm bells," Cummings said.

But there are sirens going off now and Supervisor Duane Paulson, a strong advocate of the museum who wanted more funding for it last year, is disappointed by the developments.

"To say that those of us that pushed really hard for this are embarrassed is an understatement," Paulson said.