Forensic Science Center Gains Funding
State commits $20 million toward county's new $127 million home for medical examiner and emergency management.
This funding will help advance what is actually a joint $226 million project between the county and the state, to build a three-story, 200,000-square-foot building, called the Center for Forensic Science and Protective Medicine, that will house the county’s Office of the Medical Examiner and Office of Emergency Management and the state’s Department of Justice Milwaukee Crime Lab.
The $20 million announced by Evers builds on another major piece of funding, which has been recommended but not yet authorized. That is another $20 million in funding taken from the county’s allocation of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Milwaukee County’s ARPA Task Force recommended approval of the funding. But the funding still needs approval from the full county board, which won’t meet again until November. The board has decided to focus the month of October on assembling the 2023 budget and will not take up other business.
“What we are currently trying to do is try to braid as many funding sources together as we can to bring down the net amount that the county would actually need to bond for,” said Joe Lamers, director of the office of strategy, performance and budget, at the September meeting of the ARPA Task Force.
The new facility would be developed in partnership with the state and condoized, with the county owning approximately 108,000 square feet and the state owning and occupying the rest. The state has committed approximately $99.5 million for its piece of the project.
The site for the new building is a six-acre parcel in the southeast quadrant of the Milwaukee County Grounds. The project is currently in the early stages of the design phase. Construction is planned to begin in the fall of 2023, with the facility opening in spring 2025.
The county and the state are jointly developing the facility to save on costs related to site preparation, operations and construction, according to the county Department of Administrative Services (DAS). It’s also intended to improve collaboration between the departments located there, and to better attract and retain highly-specialized staff.
The office is currently “right on the edge of losing full accreditation,” Peterson said, due to its case numbers per pathologist. “But what we’re seeing, of course, is this dramatic increase in homicides, we set records the last two years in a row, we’re running about 35% ahead of last year right now; and overdoses continue to be about a third of our work,” he said.
Currently, it’s the only accredited medical examiner in the state, and if accreditation is lost, it could affect the perception of the office’s testimony in court, Peterson said. He added that accreditation is also important for attracting the best trainees.
Milwaukee County is a major metro area, Peterson said, and it sees an “interesting workload” that is “terrific for training.” But he noted that the small pool of forensic pathologists in the country means Milwaukee is competing with coastal cities for talent.
“And people just don’t appreciate the cockroaches and the limited space and the crumbling infrastructure,” in the current facility, he said. “It’s frankly unpleasant, I mean, when you can walk into our front lobby and smell decomposed body on a lot of days, that’s just not good.”