The county needs a new criminal courthouse that consultants estimate will cost $184 million, but county leaders have yet to determine where to build it and how to pay for it.
[caption id="attachment_135612" align="alignright" width="344"] A rendering of a $184 million criminal courthouse consultants recommend the county build on the current site of the Public Safety Building.[/caption]
The idea of implementing a sales tax to fund the project was brought up multiple times at a Transportation, Public Works and Transit committee meeting Wednesday morning.
"That's always the hard part," Mike Thomas, president of Justice Planning Associates, told committee members. "That's always the hard part in every county. Some counties have gone out for a one-penny special sales tax for a limited amount of time. That is a solution that I have seen counties use very effectively."
Justice Planning Associates, JPA, is a consulting firm that was hired by the county to study its justice system facilities. The firm recently concluded that the Public Safety Building (PSB) on West Wells Street needs to be demolished as quickly as possible and replaced by a modern criminal courthouse to alleviate court congestion, increase security during prisoner transfer and eliminate health and safety concerns.
"We have funding options well beyond financing," facilities management director Jeremy Theis told committee members. "We've looked at other counties that have done this work and we've looked at how they (funded) it: sales taxes, public-private ventures, external funding options from the state or federal government, all of those need to be researched."
Building a new criminal courthouse in place of the PSB — which has severe air quality, mold and maintenance problems that could cost up to $150 million to fix — is the first step that needs to be taken to modernize the county's justice system, consultants said. The PSB houses dozens of criminal court rooms and county offices.
Thomas called the PSB a "white elephant" that "desperately needs to be torn down," while presenting his firm's report.
A new courthouse would also alleviate congestion at the historic courthouse, he said, which currently houses more than twice as many court rooms as it was designed to accommodate when it was built in the 1920s. Once that congestion is alleviated, it will be easier to conduct needed mechanical repairs at the historic courthouse.
Theis said the network of court rooms and county offices currently located in both buildings is so vast and complex, the planning process to find temporary operating space during demolition and construction could take up to three years. Ideally, he would like to break ground on a new criminal courthouse by late 2019 or early 2020.
In terms of location, the county's best options for the new courthouse are the current site of the PSB, and a plot of vacant, county-owned land on the corner of North James Lovell Street and West State Street, according to Thomas's report.
[caption id="attachment_135618" align="alignright" width="300"] A second option consults say could lead to prisoner transport issues would be to build the new courthouse on the corner of North James Lovell Street and West State Street.[/caption]
The recommended option is to build it on the site of the PSB, since in the long-term it would both solve the county's deferred maintenance problem and place the courthouse in the best logistical position for prisoner transfer.
However, building it on the county plot two blocks east could shave about a year off of construction time.
Regardless of where the county chooses to build the new courthouse, it will face substantial logistical problems during demolition and construction that Thomas said would require a separate study to fully comprehend.
If the county builds on the site of the PSB, it would need to find temporary operating space for its dozens of active criminal courts and offices. As it stands, the historic courthouse is already overused and has security issues.
On the other hand, if the county builds on the vacant plot two blocks east, it would face long-term prisoner transfer issues that could make it easier for prisoners to escape or become injured while traveling between buildings. Prisoners may have to be put into a car and driven two blocks east, he said. The PSB is currently connected to the jail by a skywalk.
Thomas compared figuring out the logistics to playing a game of "three-dimensional chess."
"You're going to have to do this in my opinion in a very slow and strategic way," he said.
Milwaukee County Circuit Chief Judge Maxine White said conditions in the justice system are terrible for both county employees, those facing trial and the families of the accused. She said she frequently passes groups of people crowded together in hallways who are "nervous and confused" and that the current prisoner transfer system, which brings shackled suspects past jurors through public hallways, could interfere with their right to a fair trial by making them appear guilty.
"People aren't treated with dignity in these buildings," White said. "It is a critical problem in this building and we have been blessed that nothing bad has happened yet."