Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: State officials back off Capitol damage claim

March 4, 2011- Officials charged with overseeing the state Capitol Friday backpedaled sharply from their estimate - delivered in a high-profile court case only the day before - that demonstrators did more than $7 million in damage to the building and grounds during the tumultuous yet peaceful protests that erupted Feb. 15.

Touring the building on Friday morning with state architect Dan Stephans, who oversaw the Capitol's restoration that concluded in 2001, Jeff Plale said he had not immediately observed any damage from demonstrations over Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill. Plale is a former Democratic state senator and now the state facilities administrator.

Plale said that the state had not yet received any quote from an experienced contractor on the full cost of assessing and repairing any damages - something that outside experts said would be needed to legitimately estimate expenses.

"No one knows what the true number is going to be. There's going to have to be a thorough assessment of the Capitol. Any number that's given now is going to be someone's best guesstimate," said Jim Draeger, the deputy state historic preservation officer.

Draeger said he had no part in calculating the damage figure provided Thursday by Walker's administration.

It was Cari Anne Renlund, chief legal counsel for the Department of Administration, who said in court Thursday that costs for a full cleanup and restoration at the Capitol could reach $7.5 million.

"It's important to note that the $7.5 million described yesterday (Thursday) in court was the information I had available to me based upon estimates provided me by the Division of State Facilities," said Michael Huebsch, secretary of the Department of Administration, during a news conference.

That would be Plale's division.

But on Friday, Plale said "I think that's more of a worst-case scenario."

Later Friday, the administration provided a memo saying the $7.5 million estimate had been done by Stephans after consulting with a specialist in building restoration and an employee of J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., the contracting firm that handled the massive $145 million Capitol restoration completed in 2001.

The Journal Sentinel made an open records request Friday for any original state documents - produced before the statements were made in court - that detailed how state officials arrived at the $7.5 million estimate.

State officials did not immediately provide any such documents.

The questions about inflated damage estimates came a day after a Dane County judge ordered the Capitol cleared of protesters at night and reopened to the public during the day.

The seat of state government moved a little closer to normal Friday, with visitors and protesters once again allowed in, subject to certain restrictions. Demonstrators left peacefully Friday evening at the 6 p.m. closing, singing: "So long, see you tomorrow."

But the new normal still looked different. Officers were stationed at two public entries - the only ones now open - and used metal detecting wands as visitors made their way into the Capitol.

"For the foreseeable future, there is a desire to maintain that level of security," Huebsch said.

The Administration Department said the state might be able do a cleanup and "very limited restoration" of the statehouse and grounds for $347,500, if outside specialists are not required to do the work.

Tim Donovan, a spokesman for the department, said the state self-insured its buildings but did carry so-called excess policies for certain losses. Donovan was unable to say late Friday whether the excess policies would cover any possible damage in this case.

Nick Carnahan, a Wisconsin native, does architectural work on renovations and restorations of historic buildings, including one recent project on a federal building that involved marble repair. Carnahan, who is familiar with the Capitol but has not visited it in recent days because he lives in Seattle, noted that the $7.5 million estimate cited would be enough to pay several skilled laborers to do cleanup for years.

"The numbers that came out yesterday from the state just didn't make any sense at all," he said. "It just seemed very exaggerated."


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