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You Paid For It: Taxpayer dollars pay for a courtroom that's not needed

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Photo: Video by tmj4.com

You Paid For It: Taxpayer dollars pay for a courtroom that's not needed

By Jermont Terry, Tim Meulemans. CREATED Feb 25, 2013

MILWAUKEE - Millions of your tax dollars are being spent on a room that many say is not needed.

Some call it a waste, and in these times money is tight. There are many families in our area crunching numbers and looking at their budgets. So why is our government spending millions of your dollars on renovations? The I-TEAM got to work to find out.

At the corner of Wisconsin and Jefferson in downtown Milwaukee sits the federal building. It’s a historic fixture, representing the federal government. It’s big, at times confidential and yes expensive to operate.

"A lot of times, when people hear a price tag...it just sounds monumental,” said Kathy Kean with Historic Milwaukee Inc.

The price tag is for the latest face lift at the federal facility, $2,482,287.37.

You paid millions for updates to a courtroom, a courtroom without a judge. This room is not essential and the government would not let the I-TEAM in to shoot video even though you paid for it.

“It’s unconscionable and I would say even immoral,” said Chris Kleismet, who is with a citizen watchdog group.

But to fully understand the money spent you have to go back to 1892 when construction started on the federal building. Seven years later, it housed all federal agencies like the post office and the courts. In today’s dollars it cost $35 million to build.

If you fast forward about one hundred years you’ve got another $35 million price tag. According the courthouse’s website, that’s how much you’ve paid for renovations so far.

“We can’t reproduce these today at the prices that they cost and with the materials that they've got,” said Kean.

Kean is a history buff. She does walking tours in downtown highlighting the city’s past, and supports the latest restoration.

“As the historian in me might say, look at all sides of the issue. don't just jump to a conclusion,” she explained.

Many renovations have taken place at the federal courthouse over the years. We’ve seen a new roof, skylight and ventilation system, just to name a few.

Those projects, paid for with your money, were used to keep the building in its original form. We wanted to get pictures but the I-TEAM’s cameras were not allowed inside. However, Kathy Kean was allowed access to shoot video inside the courtroom for CSPAN last year. The I-TEAM found the clip on YOUTUBE.

In the online video you can hear construction in the background. It’s a reproduction of the first courtroom in the building.

Back in November 2012, we asked the feds how much this was costing taxpayers and after three months of a waiting they finally gave us that price tag of $2.4 million.

“This is a luxury renovation, high end, the kind reserved for Hollywood mansions, and the taxpayers are footing the bill,” said Kleismet.

His group watches out for government waste and when it comes to this project,

“To divert $2.4 million dollars, to essentially an art project, something that will look pretty, but have no functional purpose, is an outrage,” he said.

In a statement to the I-TEAM, the U.S. General Services Administration said, “It renovated the courtroom to address their need for space to house judges and trials.”

But each judge already has a courtroom and right now there’s at least one extra courtroom. The I-TEAM also asked where the money came from and how the courtroom would be used. The GSA never answered that key question.

Since we couldn’t see what we paid for the I-TEAM requested an itemized list of every item and its costs. The GSA told us it could not find that list. It has taxpayers asking questions.

“Really, come on. They know the exact price," said Russ Matzek. "They just don't want to scare the taxpayer anymore than they have to.”

The I-TEAM spent months reaching out to the GSA. It did not give us a statement until hours before our story aired. The GSA points out that when renovating a historic building, it’s the law to preserve all of the building's original features.