Lincoln Hills (copy)

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma. 

A key state panel has approved a plan that’s $33 million over-budget to fund county-run facilities that would replace Wisconsin’s two youth prisons. But if the proposal gets the green light, it’s unclear where exactly that money would come from to cover the new costs. 

The $113 million framework, approved this week by the Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee, would allow four counties to create new buildings or expand existing facilities to house youth in secure regional care centers. 

But the price tag comes in above the borrowing level the state previously approved for the county-run locations: $80 million. 

Before the money could be doled out, the Legislature’s powerful budget committee would have to approve the plan. If the committee OKs the extra funding, it could try to reallocate an existing appropriation toward the effort, though the spending would have to be related to juvenile corrections. But it’s unclear whether lawmakers would have an appetite to use cash to cover a building project, especially given the bulk of the funding is already coming from bonding. 

Otherwise, members of the Building Commission, which oversees state bonding, could redirect previously approved but unused bonding levels to the counties for their projects, if the proposal gets to them. 

The $33 million gap could also mean that lawmakers may have to pass an additional bill with new bonding authority to allow all four counties to move forward with their projects. 

Rep. Mark Born, a member of the Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee, Joint Finance Committee and Building Commission, acknowledged that “there might be ways” to get counties the extra funds without authoring another bill, but he said one of the questions comes down to “how much people are willing to spend.” 

“There’s no defined path at this time and we have to talk about it,” the Beaver Dam Republican said in an interview this week. 

Fellow grant committee member and state Rep. Michael Schraa, a leading lawmaker on the bill to close the state's youth prisons, expressed frustration over the process and said he's "not confident that that money is available."

That could mean the committee cuts out one of the counties from the plan in order to hit the $80 million threshold, he said, or the funding for all facilities could take a hit. But he also didn't rule out lawmakers needing to wait until next session to try to get more funding, calling it "a distinct possibility." 

"We can’t just pass this off and expect JFC to find the money," the Oshkosh Republican said. "We put a lot of time in this committee and I feel like if we were just going to be the rubber stamp on any county's proposal, then what was the purpose of our committee?"  

While Schraa has concerns about the plan, he joined seven fellow committee members in agreeing to advance it at their meeting on Monday. The proposal, which passed 8-2, includes funding for Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Racine counties. The most expensive proposal comes from northeastern Wisconsin’s Brown County, at $43 million, while Racine’s is $40 million, Milwaukee’s is around $24 million and Dane’s is about $6.5 million. 

Sharlen Moore, one of two committee members to oppose the plan (the other was Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin), noted the lack of county-run facilities in northern and western Wisconsin under the plan. 

“If we’re going to have a model for the state, guess what, there are other counties that still need some sort of SRCC, particularly the northern region of the state,” she said. “There’s nothing up there. Everything is clustered on the southern part of the state.”

La Crosse County officials previously expressed interest in applying for funding but ultimately decided to withdraw from the process, expressing concerns stemming from the cost of operating the facilities. 

Born said there could be a second round of county applications at some point to include other parts of the state. But he said that additional funding would come from separate legislation or possibly future budgets, and he added the focus now is on the four counties that have gone through the application process. 

The plan members approved also notes additional “limitations.” That includes the lack of beds to house the eligible youth from the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. The county plans’ estimates show there’d be between 111 and 125 beds, which is between 52 and 66 beds short of what’s needed, per the document

Schraa acknowledged the projected shortage but noted it would "make the situation better" to still have funding available for all four county facilities. He added that he, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, JFC Co-Chair John Nygren and other GOP state reps on the grant committee are planning to meet in the next couple weeks to talk through options. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn't immediately return a request for comment. 

Meanwhile, Moore, the director of Youth Justice Milwaukee, expressed regret over the planned use of funding, saying the actions “should have been done in a way where we looked at what was really needed to change the trajectory of a young person being incarcerated.” 

She added the process should have focused on small, limited security facilities meant to house around eight individuals — for which $80 million would have been “more than enough.” Instead, she noted, Brown and Racine are planning to build new juvenile detention centers along with secure regional facilities. 

Born, though, argued it “makes the most financial sense” to do it that way, rather than have separate facilities. 

He added the four plans “have merit and will help us reach our goal of closing Lincoln Hills and creating a more regional model for juvenile justice and juvenile detention.”

The state’s youth prisons are slated to close by summer 2021. In addition to the county-run facilities, Wisconsin is also on track to implement an expanded youth treatment center at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison and a few state-run facilities for youth who have committed more serious crimes. 

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