Public Policy Forum Blog

County's Severe Infrastructure Challenges Require Selfless Cooperation

Remember the pair of shoes you used to wear to work every day? The ones that looked good and worked with everything you needed to get done? Unfortunately, they wore out to the point where they actually worked against you. Eventually, those shoes needed to be replaced.

Now take that memory and apply it to Milwaukee County’s aging infrastructure; in particular, a dilapidated Public Safety building that has served the residents of Milwaukee County since 1930. The building has become functionally obsolete, with many of its courtrooms and facilities no longer fit to serve as they once did. Replacement has been a long time coming, and is now a project the County can no longer ignore.

Earlier this week, the Milwaukee County Board’s Transportation, Public Works, and Transit Committee approved a resolution to continue logistical planning, design, and cost estimates for the demolition of the Public Safety building and construction of a new criminal courts building. The newly approved phase of the Milwaukee County Courthouse Planning Program will refine demolition and construction costs, as well as determine swing space needs (i.e. temporary space for employees while construction is proceeding) and coordination, real estate and move management, and financing.

County administrators have recommended an option contained in a consultants' report that would replace the Safety Building with a new criminal courthouse at an estimated cost of $184 million. That cost does not include expenses for swing space, relocation and tenant improvement, and improvements to the adjacent Historic Courthouse building.

The $184 million price tag is daunting enough on its own; however, when viewed in the context of the County's other infrastructure needs, it's downright terrifying.

Earlier this year, in A Fork in the Road?, our assessment of City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County transportation infrastructure, the Forum identified a need for capital spending of $13.3 million per year for the foreseeable future just for bus replacements. Three years earlier, in Pulling Back the Curtain, we estimated that the County needed to invest $246 million over the 2013-17 timeframe for capital needs associated with its parks and cultural institutions.

Those needs represent only a portion of the County's overall capital budget challenge. As shown in the chart below, the cost of capital projects requested by departments over the next five years exceeds the annual amount of capital spending deemed affordable by County budget officials by more than $45 million each year.  

This amounts to a severe financial challenge that the County seems incapable of addressing given its stagnant revenue streams and the fierce expenditure pressures associated with its retiree health care and pension obligations. Meeting that challenge will require a level of careful planning, responsible stewardship, and selfless cooperation seldom exhibited by the executive and legislative branches of County government in recent years and over the course of the County's history.

Are County leaders up to the task? We will be evaluating that question with great frequency in this space, and we will provide additional important context by continuing – over the next 15 months – our series of reports on infrastructure challenges facing the County, City of Milwaukee, and MMSD .

Keep up with our latest research and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay informed on our reports.

Ben Juarez