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Report: Courthouse project would cost Milwaukee County $367M (UPDATE)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A new report says Milwaukee County will need help from the state or a private business partner to build a proposed $367 million criminal courthouse.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that the county could also approve a temporary tax increase to help pay for a replacement of the county’s current Safety Building, which now houses various criminal courts at 821 W. State St., Milwaukee.

The county’s typical method of issuing general obligation bonds to raise money would undermine its borrowing capacity for several years and eclipse other long-delayed projects, the report said.

“There is little question that Milwaukee County needs to replace its Safety Building with a major new justice system facility,” said Rob Henken, president of the policy forum, which is a nonpartisan research organization. “And there is even less question that to do so it will require assistance from other levels of government and openness to financing approaches that fall outside of its traditional model.”

The county uses property tax dollars and state tax revenue to repay debt, but those sources won’t be able to support such a large project, said Teig Whaley-Smith, director of County Administrative Services.

County consultants found in 2016 that the building needs various changes to bring it into compliance with modern operating standards and building codes. The building has asbestos, pests and poor air and water quality.

Several of the building’s criminal courtrooms also fail to meet the state Supreme Court’s safety standards.

The county proposed building a 10-story criminal courthouse, which was estimated to cost $262 million. But the report says relocating services during construction would bring the project cost up to $367 million.

Officials are also trying to find places where normal courthouse operations can be carried out even while the demolition of the Safety Building and the construction of the new criminal courthouse proceed. In total, the county needs about 150,000 square feet for both civil-court operations and office space for various departments.

Conceptual drawings for the new courthouse show two distinct design options. The first would have all courtrooms and offices housed in the same building. The second would have the District Attorney and Sheriff’s department offices in a separate building that would be attached to the courthouse on the same site.

The new criminal courthouse would have 26 courtrooms. County staff would have an immediate need for 24 of the new courtrooms, but the extra two rooms would most likely be used in the future assuming the number of cases being handled by the county increases.

Dan Shaw of The Daily Reporter contributed to this article

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