Waukesha County Museum doesn't receive what it fully asked for from Vrakas

Published on: 10/1/2013

Kirsten Lee Villegas had hoped for $300,000.

Now, the Waukesha County Museum chief executive officer and president might, at best, only get half of that for 2014.

A county board supervisor asked Villegas if she could make due with $150,000 last month.

She said making up that $150,000 "would be an amazing task" to accomplish for an already small staff. At the time, she didn't even want to think about that possibility.

Now, it looks like that's the reality after Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas' 2014 proposed executive budget unveiled last week included only half of what Villegas requested.

Nevertheless, a joint letter signed by Villegas and Museum Board Chairman Tom Constable sent to Vrakas on Sept. 26 thanked Vrakas for providing continued funding.

The letter noted how the museum appreciates "the vote in confidence in our vision and leadership that it represents."

The letter also expressed a level of uncertainty. It read, "at this time we do not know how (Vrakas') decision to significantly decrease the public dollar support for the public museum will impact its operation."

Not full support

Vrakas said he did not include what Villegas was asking for because a majority of the supervisors don't support giving the museum a $300,000 operational grant.

Even so, Vrakas believes his proposal, which Villegas notes is less than 0.06 percent of the entire county budget, is a good compromise.

"I believe the taxpayers will support this effort over the coming year and I believe the votes exist on the county board to approve this level of support," Vrakas said.

For 38 years, the county fully supported the museum's operations, including staff salaries and benefits, building operations and building repairs and improvements.

Villegas said when the county informed the museum that it intended to sell the 1893 courthouse building, "museum leadership agreed to assume the enormous task of maintaining these structures."

Agreement for 10 years

In 2003, at the request of the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum, then-County Executive Dan Finley and the Waukesha County Board sold the old county courthouse building to the museum for $1. In 2003, the museum received $440,000 from the county.

As part of the sale, the county and museum entered into a 10-year agreement. Under the agreement, the county funded capital improvements to the courthouse building and funded an annually decreasing operational grant.

Over the last 10 years, taxpayers have provided $5.3 million to the museum, Vrakas said.

The museum's letter adds it was never its intention to take on this task without continued public funding after the initial agreement.

"It was presumed that the initial contract only covered the first 10 years of a long-term partnership with Waukesha County," the museum's letter notes, while adding the public partnership model is one that many successful museums in the state and country use.

One-year bridge grant

Vrakas last year denied the museum's proposal to increase the operational grant from $300,000 annually to $1 million per year.

Instead, he proposed a one-year, $300,000 bridge grant to partially fund museum operations in his 2013 budget. In the meantime, the museum's consultant conducted a study to help determine the organization's long-term future.

It's a future Villegas has been looking forward to with the completion of the market feasibility study. She said the study offers a "plan that is not only viable, but will meet community needs."

And despite receiving less money from the county in 2013 as it did 10 years earlier, the museum increased its earned and fundraising revenue to offset the decline in funding. During the last four years, revenues in the museum's educational department are up by more than 300 percent. Since the Les Paul exhibit opened in early June, admissions are up almost 500 percent over the same period last year.

Obstacles for museum

However, there have been challenges.

Villegas said the biggest challenge has been operating costs, ongoing building repairs and capital improvements for the historic buildings.

"We are doing more with less, having reduced our staff by half during the past five years," the museum's letter notes. "To expect a public museum to now assume responsibility in building improvements runs counter to the spirit of the now lapsed funding agreement."

It's also been a tough period, the letter states, to hear comments made by Mayor Jeff Scrima that question museum leadership. Scrima said to save money the museum should consolidate into the Waukesha Public Library.

"Despite our open and transparent responses to requests for information, presentations, there are still some who oppose supporting the museum," said the museum's letter to Vrakas. "Their divergence with public opinion, coupled with the mayor of Waukesha's radical views (first to close the museum and then a week later to become part of the library) served (whether intentionally or not), to confuse the issues."

Future funding unknown

The museum's master plan is called "Your Dream Lives Here," intended to look at how the museum can become more of a 21st century regional and cultural center.

Whether they can accomplish this with what the county is providing is unsure as Vrakas noted the commitment of taxpayer dollars is for 2014 only.

"Any future funding has yet to be determined and is predicated in large part by the decisions you make in the next year about the museum, its mission, its location and its future," Vrakas said to Villegas and Constable. "I have faith that you, the museum and its strong board of directors will rise to the challenge of meeting its operational needs and will continue on its path forward."