Building Infrastructure Challenges Highlight City, County Limits

By Ben Juarez

The further the Forum gets into our examination of local government infrastructure challenges, the more we discover vulnerabilities in the different types of infrastructure owned by our largest local governments. In the first two reports of our infrastructure series, we found that Milwaukee County is facing a serious burden in keeping up with its bus replacement needs, and that the Milwaukee Water Works is facing a huge fiscal challenge trying to fulfill the mandate by the Public Service Commission to increase water main replacement and the yearning of City of Milwaukee elected officials to expedite lead service line replacement.

In our third installment in the series, Cracks in the Foundation, we find that the County and City both have challenges when it comes to the state of their buildings. With several of its largest buildings needing replacement or major capital improvements, and one of those projects – replacement of the Safety Building – expected to cost more than $200 million, the County’s challenges are especially daunting. In fact, it’s difficult to see how these needs will be addressed considering the County’s annual bonding limits, a lack of revenue options, and other major (non-building) capital needs that have been identified.

The City, while not facing as difficult a situation as the County, still has a tough road ahead. The vast majority of its buildings are in good condition; however, City Hall and the Police Administration Building, both of which have undergone major capital improvement projects over the past eight years, are in poor and fair condition, respectively. Once the projects are completed, we should see better condition assessments from City engineers. Nevertheless, these costly projects have caused other projects in the capital budget to be deferred.

Fortunately, the City may have some ability to begin catching up on those previously deferred projects, barring any unforeseen new major capital projects that arise. The County is in a much less fortunate state, however. After deferring several building projects for years, the County finds itself with a huge backlog of needed capital repairs and replacements. Its 2018 departmental requests reveal that those needs exceed current fiscal capacity.

In our fourth installment in the five-part infrastructure series, we will look into parks and cultural institutions, with our final installment focusing on some possible paths toward solving some of these difficult challenges.