Photo by Jim Herrington. This story appears in the April 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. by Larry Sussman Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima expects to live 80 years and has all the months to come mapped out on a life calendar mounted on the wall of his City Hall office. The 4-foot-high, 9-foot-wide display looks […]

Photo by Jim Herrington.

This story appears in the April 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

by Larry Sussman

Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima expects to live 80 years and has all the months to come mapped out on a life calendar mounted on the wall of his City Hall office. The 4-foot-high, 9-foot-wide display looks like an appointment calendar on steroids, its black and white graphics staring momentously at Scrima every moment he sits in his office. It gives him a heightened sense of the road before him, of the importance of making the right choices in life, he says.

“Is money important, is power important, is pleasure important?” Scrima muses, his voice low and deliberate.“All those things pass away. Higher things are more important – the common good, the public trust, human flourishing. When I become petty or get discouraged, I look at that banner and ask, ‘What’s really important?’ ”

The rail-thin, 5-foot-9, 33-year-old mayor, his dark brown hair slicked back on his forehead, his black business suit set off by a red power tie, is not one to crack a joke or see humor or irony in the situation. He characteristically forms a pyramid with his manicured fingers while he frames his answer cautiously. Asked if he ever lightens up, Scrima’s hands frame that pyramid as he answers: “Life is serious. However, when people get to know me personally, they come to understand a softer side.”

So far, not many have. During his mayoral campaign and first year in office, Scrima has left people in Waukesha badly divided, with critics seeing him as a Machiavellian interloper who used fear tactics to get elected and supporters viewing him as a young idealist with a businesslike style and a nothing-is-sacrosanct attitude about government. No one, at any rate, thinks of him as a jolly, glad-handing politician. As Scrima’s campaign slogan declared, “It’s a new day for Waukesha City Hall,” and with 47 of his projected 80 years of life still to go, Scrima wants to maximize that opportunity.

Scrima seemed to come out of nowhere, winning election in April 2010 as mayor of Waukesha, Wisconsin’s seventh-biggest city (with about 68,400 people). Scrima captured nearly 58 percent of the vote for the four-year job, defeating one-term Waukesha Mayor Larry Nelson (who declined to comment for this article).

“Much of Scrima’s success was because his name was not Larry Nelson,” says Waukesha Common Council President Paul Ybarra. “I think that there was a pretty strong anti-incumbent feeling, and I don’t think the mayor’s shoes helped him very much. He rarely wore a tie and formal shoes.”

By contrast, Scrima owns three or four black business suits and often is dressed to the nines. “Black is just my color of preference to look like an executive,” he says.

The election was historic, probably attracting the largest number of voters for mayor in Waukesha’s 114-year history, says city clerk/treasurer Tom Neill. A total of 10,795 people cast ballots for the full-time, nonpartisan mayoral job, or slightly more than 27 percent of registered voters. Statewide, the turnout for the 2010 spring elections was only 10 percent, says Nathaniel E. Robinson, administrator of the state Government Accountability Board’s Election Division. It usually takes a controversial local issue to drive up the turnout, he notes.

The issue for Waukesha was hot all right: water. Facing shrinking reserves and well water that in some cases has traces of radium, Nelson and other Waukesha officials supported a plan to buy water from Milwaukee. Scrima condemned the plan, arguing the far bigger city would try to control Waukesha. “That was a scare tactic Scrima exploited,” Ybarra charges.

Says Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy: “I think that it plays politically in Waukesha County to beat up the city of Milwaukee, and that we’re the Bogeyman.” Former Waukesha Mayor Carol Lombardi (1998-2006) says the water issue shouldn’t have even arisen in the election because the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Compact may take years to decide if they’ll allow Waukesha to pursue buying Lake Michigan water.

But former Ald. Emanuele Vitale, who was defeated for his seventh term in the election, says Scrima raised an important issue. “I’m a senior citizen, and many people in Waukesha will not be able to live in their homes because of the [expected] high water rates. Milwaukee is a big spending city. They will have their thumb in Waukesha, and that makes me concerned.”

To his supporters, Scrima is a forthright leader who wants to run City Hall like a successful business. In this recession, he says, government officials should cut services and not raise taxes because they know their customers – the taxpayers – are squeezing their spending. “Our goal is to keep our city spending in line with what our citizens are experiencing,” Scrima says.

To his critics, Scrima is a young idealist who has not yet rounded the corner on his learning curve. Scrima, complains former Waukesha Ald. Peggy Bull, acts like he’s a chief executive addressing his subordinate council members.

“How could we work with a guy who thinks he’s an emperor?” she asks. “He talks about Waukesha losing its sovereignty if we bought Milwaukee water. I didn’t even know that a city had sovereignty.”
As over-the-top as Bull’s comment seems, there is something about the new mayor that fuels controversy and speculation. Scrima is not easy to categorize. He says he has never joined a political party “because I don’t believe that either party has all the answers. I’ve chosen to operate from the center because it’s onlyfrom the center that we can best serve the common good and promote human flourishing.”

Scrima says he is avowedly pro-Waukesha and wants to make this “the No. 1 best small city in America.” In his inaugural speech, he promised Waukesha would be to “America what America once was to the world – a beacon of what is new. A beacon of what is possible. A beacon of hope and prosperity in a time of uncertainty.”

But the exact nature of that beaconing ambition seems elusive. Scrima has told people he has an important group of advisers, but refuses to reveal their names, creating an air of mystery. His views on how his city should solve its water problem put him at odds with a long list of current and former Waukesha officials, yet oddly enough echo what some of Milwaukee’s environmentalists have argued. He styles himself as a fiscal conservative and seems to draw strength from anonymous comments published by the Waukesha Freeman, yet has managed to make an enemy of conservative blogger and Freeman columnist James Wigderson, who calls Scrima “obstinate and ignorant” on the water issue.
During the mayoral campaign, Wigderson recalls, he covered a candidate forum at Carroll University in which Scrima said Waukesha should dig a pedestrian tunnel under East Avenue to eliminate the problem of Carroll students crossing that busy street against traffic.

“When I wrote about it, he denied he ever said it, even though a room full of people heard him,” Wigderson charges. “He knew the [tunnel] cost would get him in trouble when it appeared in print. This is Waukesha. We don’t spend money.”

Wigderson, echoing many others, says, “We all want Jeff to succeed. There’s not a whole lot of things that are controversial out here. It really shouldn’t be that hard to govern.”

But oh, it has been.


Jeff Scrima’s backgroundseems an unlikely one for a politician. He was born and raised in Waukesha and proudly proclaims himself “a product of Waukesha Public Schools.” Scrima is the third of four children; he has an older sister and brother, Angela and Joe, plus a younger brother, Ryan. Every fall, Scrima says, he goes deer hunting with his father and brothers, but he’s never shot a deer and would not do so if he saw one. “I go for the tradition and the camaraderie,” he says. “I am not an avid hunter.”

A drum major at Waukesha South High School, Scrima attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., a Christian college, earning a bachelor’s degree in music in 2000. He had planned to become a music teacher, but when he did his student teaching, Scrima felt claustrophobic in a classroom, he says. “I had a tough time thinking of being in a classroom for 20 or 30 years.”

Scrima, a tenor, still loves music and has been a member of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Chorus, the state’s most prestigious chorus, for 10 years. The chorus rehearses for 2 3/4 hours every Monday night between September and June, plus every weeknight for eight weeks when the chorus accompanies the symphony in its weekend performances, says Erin Kogler, a symphony spokeswoman. Chorus members are not paid. Scrima took a leave of absence from the group when he ran for mayor.
“I think that being in a disciplined group where you have to take a lot of direction adds to a person’s character,” says chorus member Marty Foral, who has sung with Scrima for 10 years. He describes Scrima as: “very focused. He never wavers on his commitment. He’s always friendly. He takes direction easily.”

“Jeff’s very serious,” says Steve Hufnal, a chorus section manager. “He just adores the music. He’s hardly ever absent from rehearsal.”

Scrima, who is single, is also a marathoner. He ran in the Chicago Marathon in 2009 and completed the 26.2-mile event in 3 hours, 48 minutes.

After rejecting teaching, Scrima struggled a bit to find his niche. He formed a landscaping business that essentially worked for his father. For about three years, Scrima prepared the sites for the subdivisions and condominiums that his father, Joseph, was building. Eventually, Scrima says, he branched out and opened a real estate company that sold new condominiums and existing homes. Among others, he developed the Tara Hill Court condominiums on the west side of Waukesha and the Preserve at Deer Creek condos in New Berlin. He also took some real estate-oriented courses at the Wharton School of Business.

Several years ago, Scrima joined the Business Improvement District in downtown Waukesha as a member of the Development Committee and was not happy with how downtown was progressing. “I came to the realization that if things are not right at the top of an organization, at City Hall, the people at the bottom just end up spinning their wheels,” he says.

Some Development Committee members liked his ideas and encouraged him to run for Waukesha mayor, he says, and he submitted his nomination papers on the last possible day.

“My life’s ambition was not to go into politics. So I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ I joined the race at the last minute to change the conversation.”

For someone whose background is in music and real estate, Scrima expresses great confidence about his ability to run a government. People ask him, he says, how someone so young can be so confident. “It’s because I know I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not going to let fear stop the city from moving forward,” he says.

He estimates that he’s usually right in about 80 percent of his decisions. “Probably in about 20 percent of what I do, I’m unsure or flat wrong, but such is life.”

Phillip W. Lee, who chaired the Development Committee, was one of Scrima’s early supporters. At first, he thought Scrima had little chance of winning, but Lee believed Scrima would ask hard questions about city policies. “To me, truth is important; it’s vital,” Lee says. “And I believe that Jeff is committed to telling the truth.”

The Rev. Scott Arbeiter, lead pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, contributed $150 to Scrima’s campaign. Elmbrook is a conservative, nondenominational Christian church where, on average, more than 2,000 people attend weekend services.

“I think he’s a young man of solid character who wanted to make a difference in his community,” says Arbeiter, who lives in New Berlin. Scrima has worked with high school students at Elmbrook for a number of years, Arbeiter says, adding, “I like his character. He’s an earnest young man with good values.”
The 70-year-old Lee says he gets energy from being with younger people like Scrima. Lee owns a property management company and says he is one of Scrima’s inner circle of advisers.

Another team member is Ron Kading, 68, a retired home rehabilitator. When Scrima first took office, Kading says Scrima would meet every other week at the Café De Arts on East St. Paul Avenue and get advice from four to eight of his supporters.

“Being mayor is a very lonely position,” Kading says, “and Jeff would say, ‘I need some opinions.’ He was reaching out to us. We like to call ourselves the Citizen Advisory Board.”

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Ybarra says that during the mayoral campaign, Scrima talked about having a group of secret, smart people who were giving him advice on city matters. But Scrima will not reveal who these people are, Ybarra notes. “It’s disappointing,” he says, “because the mayor talks about transparency and yet he won’t say who’s giving him guidance on city matters.


At age 36, Lori Luther is a veteran of city government. She has 15 years of experience, including roles as city administrator in Reedsburg, Wis., for three years and before that, assistant city manager in Overland Park, Kan., a city of 170,000 people. She has been the Waukesha city administrator since January 2008 and is paid about $115,000 a year.

In many cities and villages, it’s typical to have an appointed city manager like Luther who answers to the mayor and Common Council, but who, by virtue of continuing on the job long-term, may know much more about policymaking than the elected representatives. The mayor typically needs a good relationship with the administrator.

But Scrima’s relationship with Luther quickly grew rocky. In the mayor’s first month of office, Ybarra and Luther say Scrima met with Fred Abadi, the Department of Public Works director, and asked Abadi if the city could fire its 150 DPW workers and have them reapply for their jobs. Scrima denies ever saying this.
Abadi says he cannot remember the whole conversation, but adds: “We had some conservation about what you could and could not do. We talked about the contract restraints, and I suggested that I and the mayor meet with the human resources director.”

Luther says: “I told the mayor that it probably wasn’t possible” to fire and rehire these workers. She adds that Scrima did not explain why he wanted to do so.

Ybarra, whose father and grandfather worked at Navistar, a Waukesha foundry, takes offense at a mass firing. “It’s serious business when you’re talking about people’s livelihoods and income,” he says. “It’s life-affecting.” In a swipe at Scrima, Ybarra adds, “Not all of us have a rich father we can fall back on.”
Scrima insists he had not asked Abadi about the firing possibility. “Paul and Lori were not part of my conversations with the public works director,” Scrima says. “Therefore, they are speaking erroneously.”
He adds that: “As any new CEO would do, I simply asked all of our department directors a number of tough questions. There’s a difference between asking questions and giving a mandate.”

Luther concedes she’s had difficulties working with Scrima. “I’m just continuing to focus on the day-to-day operations in the city,” she says. “I want to be a resource for the mayor, but it’s very difficult to do so” because he does not ask her for advice.

“It appears,” she adds, “that the mayor has a group of individuals he consults with regarding city business, rather than using city staff. It would be fair to say I had a more collaborative working relationship with the prior mayor.”

Scrima maintains that Luther “doesn’t seem to want to have any authority figures over her. She sees her role as representing the city unions, and I see my role as representing the citizens of the city of Waukesha.”

Luther says Scrima sometimes issues press releases at the end of the day regarding a problem “prior to seeking input from the staff.” Not knowing about the press release, the affected staff member is caught off guard when the media calls for comment.

After complaints from Luther about the way Scrima allegedly treated her, the Common Council, on a unanimous vote last spring, took away Scrima’s power to oversee Luther’s work. She now reports to Ybarra.

The council heard Luther’s complaints in a closed session, and aldermen have not revealed the details. But then-Ald. Peggy Bull, who attended the session, says, “When they heard what he [Scrima] had said and done, it was clear he could no longer be her supervisor. … We possibly prevented a lawsuit involving inappropriate actions the mayor may have taken toward Lori Luther.”

Scrima was at odds with council members very soon after his election. “It’s distressing that the mayor and Common Council were confronting each other before they had a chance to know each other,” says former mayor Lombardi. Government officials, she adds, need to respectfully communicate with one another and, even if they disagree, “still have respect for the other person’s opinion.

“Jeff is very academically smart,” Lombardi continues, “but you don’t automatically get respect just because you have a job title. It takes time. There’s a long learning curve.”

The Waukesha mayoral position is not a powerful one. Scrima can’t vote on city legislation unless the 15-member Common Council ties on a vote. Scrima can’t propose amendments and is not allowed to speak on issues at council meetings unless he steps down as meeting leader and hands the gavel to the council president.

When it comes to the all-important matter of the budget, the administrator prepares it with input from the mayor and then it goes to the council. The council spent months on budget discussions and then, in November, was confronted by Scrima’s veto of a five-year capital improvement plan. Scrima also vetoed the council’s recommendation of a budget increase requiring a $78,000 hike in the $51.4 million tax levy.
The day the council was slated to vote on the budget, Scrima ran an ad in the Waukesha Freemanthat showed Waukesha’s proposed property tax rate of $8.95 per $1,000 assessed valuation was higher than for Madison, Appleton, Wauwatosa, Brookfield and New Berlin. In the ad, he urged citizens to attend the council meeting that night and, “Come share your thoughts on how your tax dollars are spent.”

When asked why he ran the ad, Scrima says: “I wanted to raise the bar. If we just compare ourselves to ourselves, we’re never going to get better. If we compare ourselves to cities that have a higher bond rating and lower tax rates and similar quality of life, then we can see it’s possible to raise the bar. We are in the business of providing the best quality of life at the best price.”

Scrima says when he took office last April, he announced his goal was no increase in the tax levy for the 2011 budget. “Why didn’t any of the other aldermen come up with possible solutions to not increase spending? If they had done their jobs better, I wouldn’t have had to give them recommendations at the end.”

Ybarra does not see it that way. He says council committees held more than a dozen meetings on the budget. “At any point, the mayor can ask questions, provide input and take part in the process. He chose to do none of that.”

After the mayor’s vetoes, Ybarra says he went to the mayor’s office and found ways to sustain the mayor’s vetoes and not raise the tax levy. Ybarra quotes the mayor as saying he only was trying to learn the budget process better.

“I hope that’s the case,” Ybarra says. “I hope that was not a political ploy to grab headlines. I would hope he will take the time to educate himself on this job.”

The headline-grabbing comment alludes to an issue that has annoyed some council members – the media support Scrima seems to get.

During his campaign for mayor and continuing for several weeks after the election, Scrima spent $12,638 for 23 ads in the Waukesha Freeman. He often issued press releases that generated stories in the same paper. Former Waukesha Ald. Randy Radish, who finished last among five candidates in the primary, complains Scrima got too much coverage. “The Freeman would cover the Scrima screed of the day,” Radish says.

The Freeman lets people anonymously express their feelings and complaints on the paper’s opinion page. Those who write to the Sound Off section “are encouraged, though not required, to sign their name,” the opinion page notes.

Sound Off has become “a free-for-all,” Lombardi complains. “It’s easy to criticize when you don’t have to put your name down. It’s distressing that the media is now printing that kind of communication where the reader doesn’t know who the writer is.”

Ybarra contends that some members of Scrima’s private advisory board use this as a forum to condemn the mayor’s opponents. “I think that they are the same group that makes those points anonymously in Sound Off.’”

Bill Yorth, the Freeman’s editor, twice declined to comment on why the paper allows the anonymous comments. “We just aren’t going to comment for your story.”

Yorth says it was his boss’ decision to not comment. Yorth’s ultimate boss, James E. Conley, president of the Conley Publishing Group that owns the Freeman, could not be reached for comment.
Lombardi criticizes Scrima for how he has used the media: “The mayor so far has used the media to tell the Common Council what he will do. You have to have some communication between officials before you [go to] the media.”

A small but vocal core of Scrima’s supporters regularly attends Common Council meetings. At a meeting on Nov. 16, 2010, 14 citizens asked the Common Council to sustain the mayor’s budget vetoes, which the council later did.

Sherry Larson, a Shorewest real estate agent who lives at 412 Windsor Dr., complained that many houses in Waukesha have greatly inflated assessed values. “These properties are not selling because the taxes are way of out whack,” she said. “We have to stop this spending because people are going elsewhere. We have to live within our means.”

One man said his property tax bill increased $649 from 2008 to 2009 and had gone from 4.7 percent of his income to 5.1 percent. “My operating budget has decreased,” he noted. “But I can’t tax people to get more money. Please sustain the mayor’s vetoes.”

After the Luther confrontation, Bull says Scrima’s supporters regularly would speak out at council meetings and demand that Luther resign. “They acted like we had grabbed all the power from this kid,” Bull, 57, says of Scrima. “But he wouldn’t slow down and learn the job.”

Another Scrima partisan is Kevin Larson, 56, a facilities developer for a shopping center development company. “Those of us in private industry appreciate the business discipline he is applying to the government,” Kevin Larson says. “He’s trimming where possible, creating efficiencies, and he’s not afraid to ask hard questions. … I think it was a very strong move that he would ask for no tax levy increase. That’s what the real world is doing.”

Former Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jess Martinez didn’t vote for Scrima but has become a fan. He says the mayor was very helpful in Martinez getting a building permit to restore the W.T. Lyle Building at 910-912 Clinton St. Martinez says he will spend about $500,000 of his own money to restore the three-story historic building.

The hang-up in restoring the building came because a state fire marshal said the building did not need sprinklers, but a city building inspector disagreed. Martinez says installing sprinklers would add about $100,000 to the restoration cost. Scrima got the building inspector’s boss, the Community Development Department head, to intervene, and it was decided the state fire marshal had the final say, Martinez says.

“Sometimes everyone needs help, and the mayor really helped me out,” he says. “He made sure the city officials were doing their job. There was no political benefit to him. I voted for the other guy.”

But one of Scrima’s key supporters has swung the other way out of dismay over his style of leadership. Bryan Andringa, 51, has a job as a punch press operator for a Waukesha company and was a member of Scrima’s advisory group. Andringa recalls a meeting several weeks after Scrima took office, at the Café De Arts, with about 18 of his supporters. Some supporters were angry that three Waukesha aldermen – Ybarra, Joan Francoeur and Rick Tortomasi – planned to meet with Milwaukee aldermen to discuss Waukesha’s possible deal to buy Milwaukee water.

“Scrima felt [they] were going behind his back,” Andringa says. Scrima’s supporters thought the meeting was designed to thwart Scrima’s efforts to delay the Milwaukee decision. “There was just a lot of bad-mouthing of the aldermen, who I knew were doing nothing wrong.”

Later, after talking to the three aldermen, Andringa says he publicly challenged Scrima at a Common Council meeting “to debate the issue and have a water forum in front of the public.” But instead, Scrima wrote at least two opinion pieces in the Freeman mostly arguing that Waukesha should reconsider the possibility of getting its water from the Fox River.

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“Scrima was going directly to the public, rather than working it out with the Water Commission and the Common Council,” Andringa says. “From what I could see, he never wanted any public forum on the water issue, nor did he ask the council for money to study his water ideas.

“I thought Scrima had all the right things. He had the work ethic, he wanted to keep a hold on spending. … I still hope the mayor will sit down and start working with people,” Andringa continues. “No more mudslinging. But he takes things personally. You can’t do that in government. You have to look at the facts, work with the people and move on.”


No issue looms larger for Waukesha’s future than water. Its wells are running out of water and the level of radium in some wells doesn’t meet federal standards. Radium has been shown to cause bone cancer. Waukesha is under a court order to make changes needed to comply with these standards by June 2018.

The clock is ticking for Waukesha, notes Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. Duchniak supports the idea of diverting Great Lakes water to Waukesha and has estimated it would take five years to build a functioning system to do this. “In our timeline,” he says, “we only have an 18-month buffer built in for legal and construction issues. We were hoping to have a decision on our water supply source by January 2011.”

The buffer may well be necessary given the complicated interstate politics at work. In 2008, the eight states bordering the Great Lakes signed a compact to protect the lakes and regulate how diversions of the water are allowed, if at all. As a community on the other side of the subcontinental divide (meaning its water flows toward the Mississippi River rather than Lake Michigan), Waukesha would need the permission of all eight states’ governors to divert water from the lake. It would also need to cut a deal with one of the cities along the lake willing to sell its water (and the most convenient choice is Milwaukee). Waukesha would be the first community in the vast Great Lakes Compact region to seek permission to divert water, Duchniak notes.

The stakes are high for the eight states in the Compact, says Peter McAvoy, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Effective Implementation of the Great Lakes Compact. “If this is done in a slipshod way,” and if Waukesha doesn’t have a thoroughly researched case to prove a diversion of Lake Michigan water is absolutely necessary, he cautions, the issue could come back to bite the Compact members. “The new U.S. Census shows how much power in Congress the Great Lakes states have lost to southern and western states that also want Great Lakes water,” McAvoy says. “We’ve got to implement the Compact correctly. If we don’t, Congress could undo the Compact.

“The journey for approval is a major, major undertaking,” McAvoy adds. “The Great Lakes Compact says cities have to lay out compelling cases showing there are no reasonable alternatives to meet their needs. Waukesha doesn’t appear to have done the necessary legwork to risk a Lake Michigan diversion.”
McAvoy, on staff with Milwaukee’s Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, is also among a number of Milwaukee-based environmentalists who have questioned whether Milwaukee should sell water to Waukesha. They wonder whether Waukesha couldn’t use its current resources (well water and the Fox River) along with conservation efforts to meet its needs.

Ironically, Scrima’s preferred solution to Waukesha’s water needs essentially echoes that of the Milwaukee greens. McAvoy says his environmental coalition met with Scrima twice after his election as mayor. “He was just collecting information from a lot of people,” McAvoy says.

Scrima’s stance has put him in opposition with nearly the entire leadership structure of Waukesha. The Waukesha Water Utility spent more than $1 million for consultants to study the various water alternatives, and they favored the Milwaukee option, Duchniak says. An advisory team of 32 experts that did a study for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (whose board includes prominent Waukesha leaders) reached the same conclusions.

Also supporting the Lake Michigan diversion plan was the Waukesha Common Council, former mayors Lombardi and Nelson, and the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

Brian J. Nemoir, past chairman of the Business Alliance’s Advocacy Committee, bemoans Scrima’s stand. “On this issue,” Nemoir says, “the facts all point to one conclusion: Great Lakes water is the only sustainable source of water for the city of Waukesha.”

The Compact rules require that any diversion of water must return the same amount back to the lake, meaning Waukesha would need a system of pipes that brings the water west to Waukesha and then returns the used (and purified) water to the lake. The cost of this system has been estimated at $170.2 million, which includes the annual operating costs. CH2M Hill prepared Waukesha’s application for Lake Michigan water that went to the state Department of Natural Resources.

By comparison, it was estimated that getting water from shallow aquifers near Waukesha and the Fox River bed would cost $191.4 million, from deep and shallow aquifers would cost $196.2 million, and from a combination of Lake Michigan and a shallow aquifer $245.5 million.

In Waukesha’s application for Lake Michigan water to the Wisconsin DNR, the city concluded this would provide “the most reliable, cost-effective, and high-quality drinking water for the future. … The groundwater supply options have much greater adverse environmental impacts than using Lake Michigan, are not sustainable long-term and are not as protective of public health.”

In his campaign, Scrima rejected this view and essentially seconded this analysis by McAvoy: “If you look at a combination of alternatives that they have not thoroughly explored,” McAvoy says, “the citizens of Waukesha may decide that it’s far more economical to pursue a combination of alternatives,” and thereby maintain control of the city’s systems.

But candidate Scrima’s most potent argument was more political, arguing that Milwaukee would thereby control Waukesha’s destiny. “Milwaukee has already resolved to use water sales to dictate Waukesha’s business, jobs, housing and transit,” he warned.

To buttress this claim, Scrima points to a meeting he had with Milwaukee officials after he became mayor. Last May, Scrima met with Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines Jr., Ald. Michael Murphy and Ald. Robert Bauman. Scrima says they confirmed they wanted a noncompete clause in the agreement.

To Murphy, this means “neither party would go and poach each other’s businesses. We’re not in the business of subsidizing industry in Milwaukee to leave to go to Waukesha.”

Scrima also objects that Milwaukee will charge too much. Says Murphy: “We feel the value for water is more than the cost of transporting and treating the water. Water has an intrinsic value.” Murphy, who chairs the Finance and Personnel Committee, estimates the intrinsic value of Milwaukee water should cost Waukesha about $1 million a year. New Berlin agreed to pay a one-time surcharge of $1.5 million to Milwaukee in its 20-year water agreement with the city.

But Hines has concluded New Berlin should have paid more. “For the remaining 19 years,” he has noted, “Milwaukee will essentially give away its most powerful economic leveraging tool without any benefit to our taxpayers.”

Scrima says the meeting confirmed his fears. “If Milwaukee wants to control the future of city of Waukesha jobs and business growth or charge us an exorbitant amount for water, then my personal opinion is we should be very cautious.”

Duchniak disagrees. “There were some reservations about dealing with the city of Milwaukee” harbored by the many pro-Milwaukee leaders in Waukesha, Duchniak says, “but that is what the negotiating process is all about. You try to get the best deal for the Waukesha residents.”

But Scrima notes that last summer, Milwaukee asked the Public Service Commission for 40 to 50 percent rate increases in what suburban customers pay for Milwaukee water. Scrima does not want Waukesha to be put in that position.

Besides, Scrima argues, “We do not know that all of the seven other Great Lakes governors [besides Wisconsin’s Scott Walker] are going to accept our application for a Great Lakes diversion. Therefore, it’s only reasonable that we have a Plan B and a Plan C.”

But to business leader Nemoir, the difficulty of getting Compact approval is precisely why the city must be united on the issue. “We don’t need to give Michigan a reason to say, ‘Your mayor doesn’t support this, why should we?’ A community’s mayor should be its main cheerleader. We have to stop pretending there are magical other options for Waukesha getting water.”

The lack of unity could also kill Waukesha’s application for a diversion with the state DNR. (The agency has also raised policy concerns. Last December, the DNR asked for more information on the request, and according to press reports, it also asked Waukesha to explain why it’s rejecting digging new wells in aquifers west, northeast and southeast of the city.)

Scrima’s predecessor, Larry Nelson, had put years of patient work into building a consensus around the water issue with all the key leaders of Waukesha, only to have Scrima go directly to the people and undo the whole thing. “Scrima struck a chord with the people because they felt we weren’t being played straight with” when it came to the Milwaukee water issue, says Scrima supporter Kading. “It just could be the political climate today. We just don’t trust government.”

That attitude could help Scrima in his battles with the Waukesha establishment. As for his fights with the Common Council, Scrima justifies this by noting an old saying in the music world about composing a new work. “Without dissonance, there is no innovation,” he says. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth going through a little dissonance in the early stages.”

But what if you hit a wrong note?

The former music major was ready for that one. “Did any of the great composers ever hit a wrong note?” he asks. “Of course. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms created dissonance in their day. And that helped bring us the great music we enjoy now.”

Larry Sussman is a freelance writer. Write to him at

About That Salary
Did Scrima live up to his promise to give back 50 percent of his salary? 

As a candidate for mayor, Jeff Scrima promised to “work for half pay” and return half of his salary – after health and dental insurance plus taxes – to the city. Instead, he has created a nonprofit foundation, the New Day in Waukesha Fund, which he controls, and has given half of his salary (which was $70,100 and rose this month to $73,100) to this foundation.

Scrima has formed a five-person advisory committee, which includes himself, to recommend how the fund should use the money. The Waukesha County Community Foundation Inc. handles the fund’s money. Scrima says the money primarily will be used to design and construct appropriate gateways to city entrances, for activities and events that elevate the beauty of visual and performing arts in Waukesha, and to provide opportunities for Waukesha youth in the arts, sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel criticized Scrima in a PolitiFact column because instead of directly returning the money to city coffers, Scrima is making a charitable contribution that he can use as an income tax deduction, and whose gift-giving he then controls.

Did he mislead voters? No, says Scrima.

“I went back and analyzed what I said and wrote at the time, and I promised I would serve as full-time mayor on half pay, and I’m doing that,” he says. “Once we designate specific projects that citizens and local business owners can get excited about, then you’ll see this multiplied effort really pay off. In the end, this fund will have a far greater impact on Waukesha.”

By the end of 2010, Scrima says, the fund had more than $30,000, including a check for $16,500 from the Lato Family Foundation. Gary Lato, who runs this foundation, says “We certainly see that a thriving and vibrant Waukesha is good for all of Waukesha County. We wanted to give back to the city.”