Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Creates Culinary Program for Youth Offenders

Program at Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center could be nationally unique.

By - Dec 29th, 2020 03:22 pm
Sup. Ryan Clancy. File photo by Graham Kilmer.

Sup. Ryan Clancy. File photo by Graham Kilmer.

Milwaukee County is going to develop a culinary program at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center to teach incarcerated youth to cook and work in a kitchen.

The board of supervisors recently approved spending $500,000 to build out a commercial kitchen at the center. Once built, the county will work with the local restaurant industry to develop a program so the teens there can learn skills they can later use to gain employment.

“This will provide opportunities for youth who happen to be incarcerated in Milwaukee County,” said Sup. Ryan Clancy.

The idea for the program came Clancy. While the board was working on the 2021 budget, Clancy introduced a number of amendments aimed at cutting funding from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s overtime budget, and reallocating those funds to other county services. One of his proposals was the commercial kitchen and culinary program at the youth justice center.

During deliberations, several of Clancy’s fellow supervisors expressed support for the proposal, but not for the funding source. It was during budget talks that the prospect of using funds from the county’s debt service reserve was first raised.

By law, the county rolls surplus funds into its debt service reserve, which lessens the amount of tax revenue needed to pay down debt in the subsequent year, thus freeing up more funds the county can spend on capital projects and operations.

Surplus funds can also be used for one-time capital improvement projects, like the commercial kitchen at Vel R. Phillips.

The resolution, sponsored by Sup. Joseph Czarnezki and Clancy, passed the board on a unanimous vote at its meeting in December.

Some supervisors voiced concern both in committee and during the board meeting that $500,000 was a hefty price-tag for a kitchen. Clancy said it’s an overestimation of the cost and that any money not spent will roll back into the debt service reserve.

Clancy said that restaurateurs and culinary equipment suppliers are already pledging donations to the planned kitchen and program at Vel R. Phillips.

“This is something that we can do right now, while we’re waiting for our youth to come back from Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills,” Clancy said. The state is moving to close these controversial facilities and instead use local facilities in counties like Milwaukee to handle the youthful offenders. The county’s current policy is to keep all incarcerated youth at the Vel R. Phillips Center as of  July 21st, when the state facilities at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake will be closed.

“This is some substantial improvement we can make in their lives and for their post-incarceration opportunities,” Clancy said.

Clancy said there are other programs similar to this around the country, but none that involve a commercial kitchen like the one planned for the youth justice facility.

“This would be unprecedented in terms of the community involvement that we have,” Clancy said. “In terms of some of the best restaurateurs and chefs from across Milwaukee giving the young people in our care kind of a leg up, so that when they are released from our care they have employment possibilities.”

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