The story behind our Milwaukee County justice center report

By Jeffrey Schmidt

This morning, the Forum released a report on one of the most critical issues facing Milwaukee County government: how to come up with more than $300 million to replace the aging Safety Building. That building was built in 1929 and no longer meets the County’s functionality requirements for the critical public safety services it houses. What you won’t find in the report is the back story on how this project came about.

Over the past two years, the Forum has been analyzing the condition of local government infrastructure in metro Milwaukee and the capacity of local governments to finance their infrastructure needs. So far, our five-part series of reports has included installments on City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County roads, bridges and buses; MMSD and City of Milwaukee sewer, wastewater, and water assets; and City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County buildings. Our next report – to be released in June – is examining the condition of the County’s parks, recreation, and cultural assets.

We never know how government leaders will react when we dive into their finances or operations. Understandably, they tend to get anxious when outside entities review their financial documents or, in this case, the condition of their infrastructure and their diligence in conducting appropriate maintenance.

We had particular trepidation with regard to our buildings report, which found that several of Milwaukee County’s major buildings (including the Safety Building) were in poor condition, and that the cost of addressing the problem far exceeded the County’s borrowing capacity.

To our pleasant surprise, however, County officials not only did not take umbrage at our findings, but agreed with us and requested our help.

Within a few weeks of releasing the report, administration and facilities officials asked if we would research how other large counties had financed similar courthouse-related projects and advise them on potential financing options for the new justice center. While the County hypothetically could have conducted this research itself, officials felt it would be better to have an independent entity perform the work so that no bias would be perceived.

It was nice to see government officials use our research as a vehicle for engaging in problem-solving, and gratifying to see them recognize the value the Forum can play in researching and framing critical policy issues for their decision-makers. Now, we hope our policy options gain some traction.