Call for new Milwaukee Public Safety building reveals some hidden county history

NOW: Call for new Milwaukee Public Safety building reveals some hidden county history

Inside the Milwaukee County Safety Building is an unused jail. Now, criminal courts are housed in the building that was built in 1929.The prisoners were moved to a new facility in 1993, but inmate’s shoes, toilets, and drawings on the wall remain untouched. The jail takes up about half of the space in the Safety Building.

“It was built as a donut shape and has jails on the inside that cannot be converted for any purpose,” Teig Whaley-Smith, Milwaukee County Director of Administrative Services, said. “We’ve crammed criminal courts in there that were never designed to fit there,”

The old jail is not the only sign of the Safety Building's age.

“We have a pest control problem,” Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine White said. “We have a problem with asbestos. We have problems with all kinds of facilities, maintenance, including the restrooms and stairwells.”

Right now prisoners are transported through the Safety Building hallways right past jurors, victims, and the public. Chief Judge White says this is a public safety issue.

“I worry every day that I walk through the halls of this building and I'm grateful when I leave at night that nothing happened,” Chief Judge White said.

She says the prisoners’ public path also impacts justice.

“They walk right along the halls where the jury panels are lining up for a particular court,” Chief Judge White said. “It's very troubling. I think it runs the risk of alienating people from believing justice really exists in this building."

Officials say renovating the building is not an option.

“The plan is to take down the safety building,” Whaley-Smith said.

He says in its place a 10-story Criminal Justice Center will be built to handle criminal courts. Civil courts will stay in the historic County Courthouse.

The new building will cost the county up to $300-million dollars.

“There will be sticker shock for this project,” Whaley-Smith said. “But going through the facility and seeing how we're just letting money literally leak through the windows by paying for heat in a building and paying for elevator maintenance. We're not making a good use of taxpayer dollars right now.”

The County is now working with the Wisconsin Policy Forum to figure out how to pay for the new building.

“Either we're going to have to have new revenue sources or we're going to have to see the county liquidate assets.” Rob Henken, Wisconsin Policy Forum President, said. “We're going to have to acknowledge that more borrowing needs to be done, or a combination of all three.”

The county is already starting to sell some of the buildings they do not need.

So far Whaley-Smith says the county has moved out of more than one million square feet of space and is instead renting office space in other buildings.

“No one has noticed because it's not community serving space,” he said. “We're not closing facilities and parks.”

Whaley-Smith says raising court fees is also an option and possibly asking the state if the county can keep more of the revenue from the court fees.

Right now he says the state keeps about 90 percent of the fees.

“You can't outsmart a building that was built as a jail and you are trying to cram courts into it,” Whaley-Smith said. “At some point, you have to figure out a plan to correct those past errors.”

Once the County figures out how to pay for the building, it will take around three years for the new Criminal Justice Center to be built.

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