Sometimes it seems everything’s a fight at the Milwaukee County Courthouse.
During last fall’s budget battle, even County Executive Chris Abele’s request for a personal security detail provided by a private firm or local law enforcement touched off a tussle.
Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr.’s reaction was basically no way: "I won't spend one penny of taxpayer money on Abele's self-importance exercise."
Supervisor Jason Haas said Abele was wealthy enough to pay for his own security. Others noted Scott Walker had no security when he had Abele’s job. Abele said he’d received threats.
The County Board ultimately carved 75% from Abele’s plan for $400,000 worth of protection and assigned the duty to -- who else? -- Clarke’s office, then overrode an Abele veto to make it happen.
After tempers cooled, County Supervisor David Cullen portrayed the outcome as a victory for Abele and the taxpayers.
"The County Executive also requested $400,000 for his personal security," Cullen wrote in his year-end 2013 newsletter to constituents. "The Board allocated $100,000 from the Sheriff's budget for this purpose. This will provide the County Executive with the same level of security as the Governor and the Mayor of Milwaukee while saving taxpayers $300,000."
We can’t say what the appropriate level of spending is. But let’s check that last statement by the county supervisor.
Did the move provide the same level of security, while saving money?
How spending compares
For the record, Abele believes the County Board-approved plan is inadequate.
His spokesman, Brendan Conway, said Milwaukee Police officials privately estimated -- based on what it costs to protect Mayor Tom Barrett -- that it would cost $400,000 to protect Abele.
MPD spokesman Mark Stanmeyer told us that the $400,000 figure (it’s $500,000 including overtime) includes police presence in the entire municipal complex, not just for protecting and driving Barrett to events. Officers are stationed at the Treasurer’s office, for instance.
It’s clear, though, from what police tell us that a significant chunk of the $400,000 covers Barrett, and that multiple officers are part of the team that protects and escorts him.
By contrast, the county plan is limited to $100,000 and county supervisors say they were told the funds would cover salary and benefits for the equivalent of one full-time deputy.
In addition, Conway said Clarke so far is talking about an on-call system, not a body attached to the exec’s office. In addition, Abele would only be escorted when outside the Courthouse. That would be different than the City Hall setup, where police provide security for Barrett both while working in his office and outside City Hall at various functions.
As for Walker, who was elected governor in 2010, it’s clear that his security costs greatly exceed $100,000.
Factors include a large increase in threats he and his family reported receiving in the wake of his Act 10 collective bargaining law, and the fact that his two sons lived at home in suburban Milwaukee during the height of the protests over the law. The governor has maintained separate residences in Madison and Wauwatosa.
The costs of the governor's security detail totaled $611,400 over the 10 months from Walker's election in November 2010 to the end of August 2011, the Journal Sentinel reported at the time. That also covers the lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch.
That was more than twice as much as it cost to protect then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle over the comparable 10-month period from November 2009 to August 2010. We could not get updated figures.
In 2013, a state transportation spokesperson told the Capital Times that the State Patrol unit responsible for providing security for the governor, lieutenant governor and visiting dignitaries has doubled its staffing from five to 10 since Walker took office.
As is readily evident to the public, a State Trooper squad is a fixture in the driveway of the Walkers’ home in Wauwatosa.
In light of these facts, we asked Cullen about his newsletter claim that Abele would get "the same level of security" as Barrett and Walker.
He told us he "may have chosen my words inartfully," explaining that he meant only that professional law enforcement would protect Abele just as it does Walker and Barrett.
"I wasn’t necessarily arguing it was the same level of man hours the governor or mayor gets," Cullen said.
A day later, Cullen said it was possible the county and city security could be more comparable than at first blush.
The comparison is not as straightforward as it seems, he said, because the county figure ($100,000) doesn’t include spending on the security checkpoints at the public entrances to the Courthouse. Those checkpoints, staffed primarily by security-trained county facilities employees and lately with help from sheriff’s deputies, give the Courthouse a security dimension lacking at City Hall.
True, but it’s hard to get past the fact that Barrett gets close personal attention inside and outside City Hall, while Abele would only have escorts outside the Courthouse -- and possibly only on an on-call basis.
In sum, we think Cullen’s claim would read to most people as comparable security presence for Abele and the other two officials, and it falls way short of that.
Is it a savings?
What about the $300,000 savings Cullen claimed from the County Board’s action? He bragged about it in his newsletter under the headline, "County Board Adopts a no-tax increase Budget While Protecting Core Services."
While it’s true the board slashed Abele’s security request by that amount, the money was not used for tax relief. Instead, the money went for new spending: The County Board shifted the $300,000 through a budget amendment to beef up the county’s existing support of emergency homeless shelters.
Finally, what will happen now that Abele and Clarke -- bitter personal and political rivals -- have to work out a security plan?
Clarke told us he’s still angry that Abele eliminated the sheriff’s department’s dignitary protection unit in the 2012 election year, opening Clarke to criticism about not fully participating in security when President Obama visited the area.
"Now in his narcissistic way (Abele) feels his security should be funded without question as to cost," Clarke told us. Conway’s response: Clarke has made clear he has the authority to provide whatever function he wants.
Clarke, who is certified in dignitary protection work, declined to discuss how the department would arrange protection for Abele, citing the need to keep such details secret for safety reasons. He called it a "gross breach of security" for Conway to discuss it with the media.
Last fall, an Abele aide told county supervisors Abele would want to hand-pick the sheriff’s deputy assigned to him.
We’ll have to stay tuned to see if he picks the sheriff for the job.
Cullen said action by the Milwaukee County Board will "provide the County Executive with the same level of security as the Governor and the Mayor of Milwaukee while saving taxpayers $300,000."
There are major problems with the claim, which Cullen acknowledges was poorly phrased.
Cullen emphasized how much the County Board’s action would save taxpayers, but there is no real savings. It actually costs taxpayers more money.
Abele’s personal security would fall far short of the governor’s and also appears to be less intense than that accorded to Mayor Tom Barrett. Cullen now says he meant only that Abele would have law enforcement security as do those two officials. But his newsletter said "same level."
For these reasons, we rate his statement Pants on Fire.