Public won't use costly staircase

Public won't use costly staircase

By Jermont Terry. CREATED Jul 11, 2013 - UPDATED: Jul 11, 2013

MILWAUKEE--- Would you pay hundreds of thousands to build a single flight of stairs? Before you answer, you might want to sit down, because your tax dollars are paying for just that. 

The I-Team uncovered one costly staircase. This staircase will cost more than most homes in southeastern Wisconsin.

When the I-Team found out more renovations were underway at the historic federal building in downtown Milwaukee we had one question:  How much is it all costing? That answer did not come easy.  The I-Team waited months for the federal government to reveal a price.  It’s a price tag on a staircase the public will never get a chance to step foot on. 

New hardwood floors were just installed in Leslie Ivarson’s Mequon home.  Ivarson wants more done but like most homeowners, she’s forced to make sure renovations don’t get too pricey. 

“I’m watching my budget,” said Ivarson. As this mother watches her dollars, she’s left to wonder if her tax dollars are being spent wisely. She was more concerned after The I-Team informed her about the staircase being built at the federal courthouse. 

A single flight of stairs are going up at U.S. Attorney Jim Santelle’s office. The project is nearly $500,000. Santelle sat down with the I-Team. We asked if he understand why this project is raising so many questions in regards to money.

Santelle replied, “Absolutely, that’s why I invited you and that’s why we’re talking about this now.”  

The internal staircase is designed to connect the U.S. Attorney’s 5th and 6th floors and it has generated much talk. 

“This is some stinky cheese right here,” said Chris Kliesmet. Kliesmet runs a citizen watchdog group. He looks out for government waste.

“I say thanks I-Team because you know what? I watched these things and I didn't' know about it and if a guy who spends as much time looking at this stuff didn't know about it, how is anyone else going to know?” explained Kliesmet.

Santelle showed us around and explained why he believes this staircase, despite being expensive, is essential. He pointed out three reasons.

Security tops his list, while safety and efficiency finish off the priority.

“I think all are legitimate,” said Santelle. Currently, staffers who work on the 6th floor of the U.S Attorney’s office must enter into a public hallway. That person must then walk down one flight of stairs. This staircase is shared with the public. The staff member must then enter a code before entering a secure area of the 5th floor.

Santelle argues tearing a hole into a floor and building the staircase will keep private documents secure.

“We are doing this to protect information, to protect safety and security of government employees,” said Santelle.

“It's ludicrous to suggest I can't carry a secure document in a folder up the existing staircase or elevator,” said Kliesmet.

But Santelle said, “We’ve done this in a way that’s fiscally conservative but we’ve done it thoughtfully.”

The U.S. Attorney insisted this project was paid for and designated from his 2010 budget, well before the federal cuts. Santelle adds he could not stop this project if he wanted to.

“But the reality is we've already spent the money to make this happen three years ago,” said Santelle.

Back in February the I-Team uncovered another expensive project paid for with tax dollars at the federal courthouse. The government renovated an empty courtroom for $2.4 million dollars.

“While I can't comment on the focus of the new courtroom here, I can tell you this is completely functional,” said Santelle. But it leaves homeowners and taxpayers like Leslie Ivarson to wonder if this was the best use of public dollars.

Santelle did provide the I-Team with a portion of an evaluation report from 1997. In that report it outlines what the office needed to do in securing documents. He said 16 years later, his office is finally addressing the problem. But critics counter by saying there has not been a security risk with documents ever and the staircase is too pricey.

Jermont Terry

Jermont Terry

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Jermont Terry joined the TODAY'S TMJ4 team in January 2011. He currently leads the TMJ4 I-Team as the investigative reporter.

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