The Jury is Out

Options for financing a new Milwaukee County Justice Center

May 2018


Our new research lays out funding options for a new Milwaukee County Justice Center. The new facility–which is expected to cost more than $300 million–will replace the aging Safety Building, which was constructed in 1929 and no longer meets the County’s needs. We examine courthouse projects from around the country and identify options ranging from full County funding to state and public-private partnerships, as well as creative debt financing options.

Our analysis yields the following conclusions:

  • A traditional approach of issuing 15-year general obligation bonds and including the project in the County’s regular capital program will not work. Given the amount of borrowing and annual debt service that would be required, this approach would leave little capacity to address the County’s other pressing capital needs and greatly intensify the County’s fierce operating budget challenges.
  • Most other large counties that have built new courthouses in recent years received state assistance in paying for the new facilities. This assistance has come either in the form of direct state financing or state legislation that empowered local governments to raise local funds for capital projects, often via referendum.
  • Many counties have drawn on multiple sources of funds to finance their project, and many have used lengthy debt repayment schedules of 30 years or more. If a state contribution to project financing is not an option, then a strategy that combines new funding sources with a non-traditional debt financing approach would appear to be most viable in Milwaukee County, as well.