Summerfest, Milwaukee police hold talks to resolve dispute over security costs

Bill Glauber Alison Dirr
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Crowds fill the concourse between stages at Summerfest in Milwaukee on Wednesday, June 26, 2019.

The Big Gig is in talks with the Milwaukee Police Department to try to resolve a simmering dispute over whether the festival is paying its fair share for security, which has topped $800,000 for four straight years.

An initial meeting took place earlier this month, according to Don Smiley, president and chief executive of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., which oversees Summerfest.

Additional meetings are planned, Smiley told the Journal Sentinel.

"We’ve met with Assistant Chief Michael Brunson," Smiley said. "We have an exceptional working relationship with the Milwaukee Police Department. We take seriously everything that was said to us in that meeting."

Smiley said his organization is trying to understand how the city is calculating police costs in order "to make sense out of what is needed here and what has gone on in the past and what does the future hold."

Smiley said it "will require several meetings to try to understand what the outcome of this should be, but I can tell you that we take all of this very seriously."

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Monday that he thinks it’s important to have these conversations.

"This is an issue that is very, very important to the city," he said. "It’s an equity issue, and I think a good starting point is to compare the numbers so that there’s an understanding of just how expensive this is for our taxpayers."

Barrett said the city had explained the calculations behind the figure for police costs but that it’s fair for Summerfest to ask questions.

The city hopes to see continued conversations on this issue, he said.

Summerfest operates at Maier Festival Park under a lease with the City of Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners.

The lease was renegotiated in 2009 and runs through 2030. Summerfest said it pays an average of $1.8 million to rent the facility, including a separate supplemental service fee. Every five years, there is a bump in the lease payment.

In 2020, Summerfest will pay $2.4 million, although it drops back down to $1.6 million in 2021.

The separate supplemental service fee payment was negotiated in the current deal. Summerfest will pay $138,423 in 2020. 

According to the 2009 lease, and a letter from City Attorney Grant Langley explaining the document, the supplemental service fee is intended only to partially offset the rising security costs, not fully cover them.

Smiley said it was "incumbent" for the festival to work with Milwaukee police, "along with our own security force in which we spent three-quarters of a million dollars."

On Tuesday, Smiley said: "The direction I've received from the (Milwaukee World Festival) board is to fact find, ask questions of the Milwaukee Police Department and report back to the chairman of the board and the board of directors given that this is clearly a board matter at this point involving our lease."

Barrett said he wasn’t surprised that Summerfest was spending on its own security force and other protections.

"I think in this world where there are increased security costs, it’s not surprising that they are doing that, just as other facilities are doing that as well," he said. "To me, this is about what’s fair to the taxpayers of this city."

Ald. Michael Murphy, who has been critical of the security costs, said that it’s a sign of progress that the police and Summerfest are communicating.

"That’s the first step to try and find a compromise here, so I’m pleased to see that," he said. 

At the same time, he said they’ve gone down this road before without any fruitful change.

The city wants to see the festivals be safe for all users, he said.