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Milwaukee city attorneys face longer office wait

Standing among boxes of filed paperwork, Bob Jorin, of the City Attorney’s office, talks about space and storage problems in the law library on the eighth floor of Milwaukee City Hall. The attorney’s office has been temporarily moved next door at the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building. City lawyers must make the trek to City Hall to access the files. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Bob Jorin, of the City Attorney’s office, pages through materials recently in the Milwaukee Legislative Reference Bureau library in the basement of Milwaukee’s City Hall. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Problems at the bottom of City Hall could further delay Milwaukee city attorneys’ return to the top.

The building is sinking because its foundation of wood pilings, designed to be submerged in water, are drying out and rotting. The city has not finalized a repair plan for the pilings, but Alderman Robert Bauman, chairman of the city’s Capital Improvements Committee, said he expects any foundation project would require employees move out of the basement, at least temporarily.

The Milwaukee Legislative Reference Bureau library is in the basement, as are employees from the treasurer’s office and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. City Clerk Jim Owczarski, who oversees the Legislative Reference Bureau, said he would not object if the reference library is moved out of City Hall, but added he is not aware of another city building that could house the collection.

The reference bureau’s records are heavy, Bauman said, and the shelves in the former law library on the eighth floor were designed to hold heavy volumes.

“It’s the only place it can go,” he said.

The Office of the City Attorney moved out of the eighth floor in 2006 due to water damage and to accommodate the renovation of City Hall’s façade. The attorneys now are in the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building, and the city attorney since 2009 has been trying to move his offices back to City Hall.

Last year, the Common Council approved spending money on demolition and other work on the eighth floor to prepare the space for renovations and, eventually, the return of city attorneys. But members of the Capital Improvements Committee on Monday did not approve spending the $1.9 million requested to start renovations in 2015, withholding that recommendation until blueprints are drafted that resolve a conflict over how best to use the space on the eighth floor.

Bauman and other members of the committee have said they want the former law library to include public meeting space, but the city attorney has said he needs the entire floor to accommodate his office.

The news that foundation work could displace the Legislative Reference Bureau’s library, Bauman said, means it could be years before the city votes on spending that $1.9 million for the eighth floor renovation. If permanently closing the basement would make the repairs less expensive, he said, the reference library could stay on the eighth floor.

“All this city attorney discussion,” Bauman said, “has become totally moot.”

City Attorney Grant Langley said Monday he was not aware of the Capital Improvement Committee’s discussion or of the potential for further delays. He said he had planned to meet with representatives of the Department of Public Works within the next week to discuss the blueprints for the renovation.

“It would be very disappointing,” Langley said. “The plan was to begin to remove walls, etc., on the eighth floor soon.”

Ghassan Korban, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Works, could not be reached for comment before deadline Monday afternoon.

Owczarski said he does not know when the foundation repair plan will be finalized. But if it requires he move the library, he said, he doubts it would move far.

Aldermen, Owczarski said, often ask research staff to determine when an ordinance took effect, for example, and that information is found in the reference library’s records.

“It really goes to the heart,” Owczarski said, “of city government as an institution.”

About Beth Kevit, [email protected]

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at [email protected] or 414-225-1820.

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