No Sign of Budget Woes Ending for Beleaguered Courts in California

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California slashed the budgets for four new courthouses by another $7.5 million this week, with more reductions planned for three others.
     The courts in Kings, Merced, Sutter, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, Tehama and San Diego counties presented ideas for cutting costs at two closed meetings of the Judicial Council's courthouse cost reduction committee.
     "We were impressed by all of them," committee chair Justice Jeffrey Johnson said in an interview Thursday. "Some of them were more able to respond to our questions on the spot and demonstrate their efforts for cost savings more than others."
     San Diego in particular made a big impression on the committee - ultimately putting up $5.3 million of the $7.5 million figure, Johnson said.
     In the past year, the pricey downtown San Diego courthouse has cut its budget down to $473 per square foot, something that Johnson noted is no small feat.
     "That's a very feasible figure for that type of structure," he said. "They are building a 71-courtroom courthouse so it's going to be more expensive than others. You also have to keep in mind security and government standards in California. You can't make a building out of popsicle sticks. There's going to be some costs if it's going to last 50 years."
     The Administrative Office of the Courts estimates that the total cost for the San Diego project is $642.5 million. But with the new cost per square foot of $473, the current total should be closer to $332 million. An AOC disclaimer says cost estimates are subject to change.
     Smaller courthouse projects like Merced Superior Court's have cut back on design, reducing its cost by a total of $4.4 million since last year.
     Merced Court Executive Officer Linda Romero-Soles said that "each of the judges' chambers has a restroom facility. We reduced one of the restrooms, and we took out the conference room. We want to make things as efficient as possible. We're also looking at eliminating our children's waiting room."
     "I have to give credit to our architect and our AOC staff," she added. "They're our experts, and we gave them ideas during the planning phase of items the courts would sacrifice."
     Kings, Sutter and Tehama counties are awaiting a decision from the committee on an amount they need to cut in the coming weeks. Kings County Superior's Court Executive Officer Todd Barton said, "Basically they have to come up with the number and we have to figure out what we're going to cut."
     The court has already cut the project to the bone, Barton said. While the court originally had a budget of about $142 million, the project has already been reduced to around $92 million. Barton noted that further cuts can pose a security threat, as the court may be forced to eliminate essentials like holding cells for prisoners, many of whom are on trial for assaults committed while incarcerated. "We have a lot of holding cells we don't want to cut because Kings County provides support for three prisons in the county," Barton said, adding that 20,000 of the county's roughly 80,000 to 90,000 adult residents are prisoners.
     "They all want trials," he said. "And then you need holding cells for the witnesses that are prisoners. And then you have different gangs and you can't have them all in the same cells."
     "We don't know what we have to cut, the amount or where," he added. "Over the last many months we've reduced our obligations more than a lot of courthouses in the state. We have cut so much out of this project. But whatever they come up with we'll do. We won't have an adversarial process. I'm hoping this committee will see we're trying to be practical. We're not looking for a bunch of fluff, believe me."
     A larger courthouse construction committee put seven other planned new buildings on hold indefinitely last month, a move that the full Judicial Council recently approved. Justice Johnson said the future is uncertain for the 23 projects allowed to move forward, given the Legislature's tendency to sweep the judiciary's construction fund during times of financial crisis.
     "Every time money is taken away, projects don't go forward," he said. "We're simply reacting to constraints that have been placed on us by the legislature and governor, so we have to do our job with the funds that are available and use the funds in the most efficacious way. But courthouses are falling by the wayside."