Milwaukee County defers accepting $15 million for youth detention center renovation

Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center at 10201 W. Watertown Plank Road.

Milwaukee County has deferred accepting $15.2 million in state funding to develop a 32-bed secure residential center for non-serious juvenile offenders in a portion of the Vel R. Phillips Youth and Family Justice Center. 

In a letter to state Department of Corrections secretary Kevin Carr, Milwaukee County executive David Crowley said the county needs more funding from the state to follow through on the proposed project. 

The state awarded the county a $15.2 million grant earlier this year for the renovation of its Wauwatosa youth detention center, located at 10201 W. Watertown Plank Road, to house youth from the county who are currently living at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. The county initially requested $23.6 million from the state for what it had planned to be a $25 million project. 

The county scaled back its plan to an estimated $17.9 million project when it learned it would receive $8.4 million less than it requested. Even with the reduced project scope, the county would still be on the hook for $2.7 million of its own funding, Crowley said. 

“This unanticipated increase in costs, which exceeds our statutory requirements, combined with the operating gap that results from supporting the 32-bed (Secure Residential Care Center for Children and Youth), creates significant sustainability concerns,” Crowley said, adding that the county already faces plummeting revenues and higher costs of services as a result of COVID-19. 

Milwaukee County’s plans for housing non-serious juvenile offenders have evolved over the past few years in response to fluctuating state deadlines and funding, along with its own efforts to reduce the need for secure residential center beds. 

Initially in early 2019, the county announced a $41 million proposal to build a new youth secure residential care center in Milwaukee and renovate the Vel Phillips center. Later, it dropped the plans for a new building, and instead sought $41.8 million from the state to remodel Vel Phillips and work with community partners to establish beds at their facilities.The county then scaled back that proposal back further to a $23.6 million plan, and now has whittled it down to the $17.9 million version. 

Separate from the county’s proposal, Gov. Tony Evers announced last year that a state-run detention facility for those deemed serious juvenile offenders (called a Type 1 facility) would be built near Teutonia Avenue and Mill Road on Milwaukee’s north side. The future of that plan, which has drawn opposition from residents in the area and neighboring Glendale, is uncertain after the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted in February against funding the facility.

Crowley said the county will hold off on accepting the grant for its project until the state releases more information about its plan for Type 1 facilities as well as potential operating support for the county-run facility in the next biennial budget. 

Mark Mertens, administrator of the county Department of Health & Human Services’ Division of Youth & Family Services, said DHHS has worked over the past four years to reduce the number of Milwaukee County youth in Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by about 70%. In early 2016, there was an average of around 100 youth in those facilities; as of July of this year, the daily average was 27. 

Mertens said the goal is to further reduce that number until there are no Milwaukee County youth deemed serious juvenile offenders by July 1, 2021, when Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are scheduled to be converted into adult correctional facilities. 

We’re trying to find a way to have the smallest footprint necessary on the deepest end of our system,” Mertens said. 

If it’s successful in reaching that goal, the county would house all youth within Vel Phillips, which currently has 24 beds. Mertens noted the facility is in need of upgrades, in particular more spaces for educational and other programming.

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