Could Waukesha County Museum soon be history?

Chris Kuhagen
The old county courthouse houses the Waukesha County Museum.
Published on: 6/18/2014

The Waukesha County Museum didn't receive the biggest vote of confidence from two different governing bodies in recent days when its financial status was discussed.

Neither the city of Waukesha nor the county seemed eager to commit money to the historic building or its operations, both of which have been subjected to increased scrutiny and some less-than-hopeful views on its future.

Said supervisor James Heinrich: "I question whether we should be putting county money in that direction. I think what the museum has done is too little too late, to tell you the truth. I might be putting the nail in the coffin."

Highlighted by an audit that showed a significant loss in net assets, the museum's financial troubles have been no secret over the last number of months.

With the Waukesha County Board cutting the museum's funding in half —$150,000 — from the previous year, the museum has had to look for ways to manage with a shrinking staff housed in an aging building that carries increasing costs, and all this without a permanent chief executive officer in place.

Seeking city help

Given those issues and with revenue slower during the summer months, Tom Constable, the museum's interim CEO, made a request for $18,000 from the city's general contingency fund, as well as another $7,000 for in-kind contributions for lawn mowing and snow shoveling services by the city.

Constable said the money would work as a stopgap before a new executive director is hired.

Constable's request for $18,000 was voted down by the city's Finance Committee, 4-1, at its June 10 meeting. The request will go to the Common Council on a "negative recommendation."

Not everyone was so pessimistic. At least, Alderman Andy Reiland voted in favor of the museum getting the money.

But Alderman Joe Pieper said he didn't feel it was the taxpayer's role to help fund the museum.

"For me, there is a difference between what the responsibility is for the community versus the taxpayer when funding organizations like this," Pieper said. "For me, it's more of a community responsibility than a taxpayer responsibility."

And, regarding the in-kind contributions, city staff noted the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department felt that adding maintenance services would be an "unfair workload."

Pleading with county

Meanwhile, Constable said he had preliminary talks last week with the county on possible funding for next year. Whether that happens will be determined during the budget season.

According to a review by Waukesha County's Accounting Services Manager Lawrence Dahl, the museum needs county funding to survive.

"For the longer term, without a stable funding plan in place, it is difficult to foresee the museum continuing operations without continued county support at some level," Dahl said in his review.

That review was the focal point of the Waukesha County Board's Executive Committee meeting on Monday, June 16.

While Norm Cummings, director of administration for the county, acknowledged museum officials making strides and the internal controls getting stronger, he said, "We do not believe they can continue to operate next year," given the museum officials' current plans. "... There really is no plan to make major changes in what they're doing and where they're going for next year."

Maintenance issues with the old county courthouse building continue to rise and, according to Dahl's review, the historical society will complete a fundraising plan addressing these issues by June 30.

While Cummings said he believes the museum is in need of a "million-dollar" roof repair, the museum has an approved Community Development Block Grant of $38,957 for such repairs.

"The building needs more and more help," Cummings said. "That's one of the big problems."

Some positive efforts

Waukesha County Board supervisor Gilbert Yerke, who is acting as a liaison between the museum board and the county board, called the museum's situation "a multi-edged battle."

On the positive side, Yerke said the museum is investigating a contract for a catering service to generate revenue and chip in money as well as using its unused offices for corporate outings.

"They are working hard looking for some major donors," Yerke said. "They're out fishing. They're looking for someone who can make an endowment to the building."

Such efforts didn't evoke broad optimism, however.

"It will be a tough defense of the county giving the museum money," said Waukesha County Board Chairman Paul Decker.