There is not much dispute that Milwaukee County needs a new criminal courthouse. The real question is: Where will the money for the $184 million project come from?
Earlier this year, a group of consultants wrapped up work on a study the county commissioned to find the best use of the historic Milwaukee County Courthouse, near Wells and 10th streets in downtown Milwaukee, and other existing buildings. The consultants concluded that the county’s Public Safety Building, at the corner of North 9th and State streets, should be demolished and a new 360,000-square-foot criminal courthouse built in its place.
The project would mean big changes are in store for the county’s Courthouse Complex, a group of properties that also includes Criminal Justice Facility.
The recommendations came with a price tag of roughly $184.3 million. But before shovels can go in the ground, the project still must have a master plan.
The county’s 2017 budget contains $500,000 for that purpose. Members of the county’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee voted 4-1 Wednesday to recommend various uses of that money, including determining where county departments will move while work on the project proceeds.
For those recommendations to be official, they still need the full Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors’ approval. And even then, various supervisors say they are uncertain where the rest of the money will come from.
“This is a wonderful project; it’s a necessary project,” Supervisor David Sartori said Wednesday. “But how in the world are we going to pay for it?”
Finding an answer won’t be easy. Various county officials acknowledged that they have little more at this stage than guesses about possible sources.
Jeremy Theis, Milwaukee County facilities management director, said Wednesday that the $500,000 voted on by the transportation and public works committee will be used in part to identify other sources of money.
“We’re not to the point where we have to make those decisions (on financing), but we are at a point where we can discuss these options,” Theis said. “We need to figure out what we’re financing first.”
In a letter sent to the county’s transportation and public works committee, Theis said the options include making use of government bonds, public-private partnerships or court-system fees, among other things.
The work on a Courthouse Complex master plan comes as the third phase of the project. The first two phases involved diagnosing the buildings’ current condition and determining whether there is a need for replacements.
Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic cast a critical eye on the county’s planning of the Courthouse Complex project, deeming it “piecemeal.” She said she wishes the County Board had a better idea of where the money for a project of this size would come from.
“This is probably one of the largest decisions we’re going to be faced with in quite some time,” she said, comparing it to the $30 “wheel tax” that the county passed as part of its 2017 budget. “This actually makes the wheel tax almost look small when you look at the public money.”
A wheel tax is a local vehicle-registration fee that is collected on top of the annual $75-per-vehicle fee collected by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation each year. Follow @alexzank