Milwaukee County's Deteriorating Public Safety Building Lends Irony to Name

May 9, 2018

Milwaukee County’s Public Safety building is long past the point where it is simply aging. The building was built with a jail inside in 1929. Prisoners were moved to a newer facility more than 25 years ago and the building now mainly houses courtrooms and legal offices.

"The estimates are that you would need 40 to 50 million dollars' worth of work, just to try to keep it in its current functionality, which is very low functionality."

While nearly everyone agrees there needs to be a plan for the public safety complex’s future, there is no plan currently in place. The Wisconsin Policy Forum just released a report on several potential financing plans for a new facility. 

"The estimates are that you would need 40 to 50 million dollars’ worth of work, just to try to keep it in its current functionality, which is very low functionality. So to really make it something worth using, the only solution is to tear it down and build a new one," says Rob Henken, president of the forum. 

The several financing options examined in the report were inspired by other cities facing similar dilemmas, including the implementation of special sales taxes. That option would require authorization by the state legislature, whom Henken says has, "shown no inclination, at this point, to give local governments that type of special sales tax authority." 

"...Purely hypothetically, if you were to keep that one tenth of a cent in place in Milwaukee County for some period of time to pay off the debt service for a new public safety building, that could be a viable approach."

He continues, "That being said, there is a special sales tax already in place in Milwaukee County... It's the Miller Park sales tax, it's a tenth of a cent. It is due to expire once the debt from Miller Park is paid off, which should occur in 2019 or 2020. And so, purely hypothetically, if you were to keep that one tenth of a cent in place in Milwaukee County for some period of time to pay off the debt service for a new public safety building, that could be a viable approach." 

Henken says that could be combined with special court fees, similar to those used in cities throughout the country. Think traffic fines and court surcharges for users of the court, similar to a toll on a highway. 

But he cautions, "The problem is that most of the users of the court system perhaps don't have the means to pay extra court fees."