FOX6 Investigators: MPD buys $500 chairs

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- It seems some members of the Milwaukee Police Department are sitting pretty these days. The department recently took delivery of 150 new office chairs.

But they aren't just any office chairs. They're Herman Miller chairs. And MPD paid nearly $500 for each one.

Otis Winstead was a bit more tightfisted when he bought a chair for his home office.

"You know, there's nothing wrong with this chair. It's a good chair," Winstead said.

Winstead is a writer for the Milwaukee Area Technical College newspaper, where he's also a student.

He'd love to buy a brand new chair, but his budget is tight.

Otis Winstead bought his home office chair at a second hand store for 7 dollars.

So he bought one at a local thrift store instead.

"Obviously, the price is right.  Seven dollars," Winstead said.

Winstead invited us to take a look at his seven-dollar office chair after we told him what police are paying for theirs.

"Get outta here," he said.

Of course, nobody expects police to buy used furniture. But when the Milwaukee Police Department put out bids for 150 new office chairs in January, they had their hearts set on one specific model.

MPD bid request specifically calls for Mirra chairs with "no substitutes" allowed.

The Herman Miller "Mirra" chair. No substitutions allowed.

"What do you think Milwaukee Police paid for these chairs?" asked FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn.

"I hope not more than a couple hundred dollars," said Mike Keyes, a Milwaukee taxpayer.

"Probably about a hundred and fifty dollars," guessed Paul Seymour, another taxpayer we met outside the Milwaukee Public Market.

"I'd say a hundred, maybe 200 dollars?" said Adrianne Stone, who was with Seymour.

"They probably paid $300," said an unidentified man.
"No, they didn't pay $300 for that chair," Winstead countered.

And Winstead is right. Police did not pay 300 dollars. They paid more.

"What if I told you that these cost 500 dollars?" Polcyn asked.
"Oooh wow!" exclaimed Stone.

Police paid $499 each for 105 chairs with arms, and roughly $419 each for another 45 chairs without arms. Total cost of 150 chairs -- $71,313.45.

"Are you serious?" asks Anthony Sartin, a Milwaukee taxpayer we met outside the police administration building. "That's a waste of money in my opinion."

According to a Herman Miller brochure, the Mirra chair is precision engineered for superior ergonomics. It's even 96 percent recyclable.

'It's a great chair. It's a $500 chair. The question is, do you need a $500 chair?" said Chris Kliesmet of Citizens for Responsible Government, a taxpayer watchdog group.

"The problem is this attitude that we`re spending somebody else`s money."

Ordinary office chairs come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and price ranges. But the Herman Miller chairs are far from ordinary. You can't buy them at at typical office supply store. In fact, there's only one retail store in the Milwaukee area that sells them to the general public. Design Within Reach in Milwaukee's Third Ward. DWR caters to high-income, urban professionals, who want top quality furniture without the need to hire an interior designer.

Only local store where Herman Miller chairs are sold.

"Cheaper products are still expensive," said Dana Grabovic, proprietor of Design Within Reach. "You might spend 300 or 400 on another chair, but you're going to have to replace it in 5 years."

The Mirra retails for more than $800.

So at $500, Milwaukee Police tell FOX6 they got a great deal for taxpayers. But they won' tell you that on camera. Our request for an interview was denied. In fact, Milwaukee Police wouldn't even let us see the chairs you paid for.

Instead, MPD provided FOX6 with 222 pages of records detailing their decision to buy the Mirra chair.

Click here to read the first 107 pages.

Click here to read the next 115 pages.

Milwaukee Police Department Administration Bulding

"The overwhelming number of chairs went to command staff," Kliesmet said.

Still, what bothers Kliesmet the most is how Milwaukee Police settled on the Mirra chair in the first place.

Records provided by police to the FOX6 Investigators show the department tested five different chairs -- all of which listed for $600 dollars or more online.

They asked employees to test the chairs for things like shape, adjustability, lumbar support and overall comfort.

It seems cost played no role in scoring the winner.

"They spent a lot of time and trouble to pick a chair," Kliesmet said. "But, nowhere. Not one person asked the simple question that every business person asks when they buy a chair.  How much is this going to cost? Do I really need to spend $500 to get the job done?"

One of the vendors that bid for the Milwaukee Police chair contract - and lost - told me she doesn't understand why this is even news.

Waukesha County's new 137,000 sq. ft. Health and Human Services building will have more than 1,000 new office chairs inside. The county paid an average of $219 per chair - less than half what Milwaukee Police paid.

Afterall, she said, Waukesha County just ordered a million dollars worth of furniture for it's new Health and Human Services building.

That's true.

In fact, Waukesha County ordered more than one-thousand new chairs for that project.

But we found the most expensive chairs they bought costs $317 dollars each. The average cost per chair is $219 dollars.

That's less than half what Milwaukee Police paid for theirs.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Barrett said he didn't have any comment, but she did say that police need heavy duty chairs considering they wear lots of equipment as part of their uniform.

For what it's worth, she says the mayor's chair is nearly 10 years old. It was purchased in 2004 for $150.68.